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SBR 6: Shut Up Shut Down

I don’t recall where I first heard of Mark Nowak. Nor can I remember where Shut Up Shut Down first surfaced. What I can say, though, is that now I remember what interested me about him.

Mark Nowak is a labor-poet whose work is tied closely with creating an understanding of working-class culture in America. Shut Up Shut Down is a compiling of projects across the country Nowak has worked on related to layoffs in mining and steel. His work is heavily researched, quoting from personal interviews, local geography and news, labor academia, and more to produce something that is very intriguing: an enthnographic poetics. Nowak is out to find literary avenues in which people voice their own literary creation, where working-class peoples both generate and become the art and culture they engage with. Fortunately, it’s tremendous poetry as well – I envy Nowak’s sense of rhythm as he pulses between interviews with Francine, a mining mother, the newspaper, and photographs. I feel like I’ve read the first essay discussing labor and Reagan that really interested me – all it had to do was turn inside-out the idea of an essay to do so, unless headlines of air controller strikes, a biography of Reagan alongside General Electric, and a capitalization handbook welded together into poetry meets your guidelines for the essay form.

I hope to read more Nowak soon. Real soon.

Filed under: Books

SBR 5: The Magic Maker

Charles Norman’s biography of E.E. Cummings has been patiently waiting my time for almost exactly a year now – if we look back into the archives of this blog, we can see Cummings’ pipe peeping up alongside Woolf, Oe, and Blackmur.

Well, unfortunately the wait has meant that Cummings has faded a bit in my mind – I haven’t had much time for casual obsessive readings of poets this year as when I first became enamored with Cummings’ writing, meaning that his poetry felt distant with this book for the first in a very long time. This is, of course, exciting news for when I have more of a chance to rediscover his work, but in the meanwhile The Magic Maker provided a somewhat esoteric picture of a man who’s work I either can’t entirely recall or never knew. Cummings still cuts quite the entertaining figure, and his biography takes him from his childhood home near Harvard through Paris, New York, and much of the literary world. Something that seemed out-of-reach even in this biography about Cummings is the impact and work of his paintings, which I am still unfamiliar with. Norman synthesizes the dual role of “The Poet as Painter” that Cummings carefully balances, but I never get a sense of Cummings in his visual work alone. This is possibly because I haven’t experienced it before – I might be saying the same things about Cummings’ work as a poet had I not read it (regardless of how unfortunately my memory is already dimming of some of his oeuvre).

The Magic Maker provides insight and commentary into a man I am very interested in still, and Norman does make use of his own role as both a close friend of Cummings and as a member of literary circles – the work is peppered with asides from many others in The Dial gang. This level of proximity can never be reached again in biography work around this period and people, and for this reason as well The Magic Maker is of value.

I hope to revisit this book when I feel more prepared for it again – and hopefully this review as well.

Filed under: Books,

SBR 4: Through the Eyes of the Judged

Through the Eyes of the Judged is a compilation of autobiographical writings from incarcerated youth who have worked with Evergreen’s “Gateways” program. Gateways is a collaboration between the college and some of the juvenile detention institutions in the area. At its core is the class that is held every year and enrolls both Evergreen students and inmates to work together academically on issues related to social justice and incarceration, which also acts a credit-earner for inmates who can use this to begin attending Evergreen after release. Along with this, Gateways has mentorship programs for Evergreen students to collaborate with some of the younger inmates and provide one-on-one support. In other words, Gateways is amazing, and I think a huge part of what I hope the Evergreen community strives for.

This collection is about a decade old now, and was loaned to me by a friend who is working a similar work to be produced in relation to current inmates and Gateways volunteers and students. While it’s important to resist reducing these people’s lives to each other, many parallels creep up in the reading of these 8 stories. All of the young men (this collection is from only one of the male juvenile prisons) here talk about being lonely as children, going through periods of isolation, abuse, and frustration that ended up surfacing in larger problems ranging from drug and cutting addictions to permanently leaving their parents at 13. What surprised me was how much I was able to see some of the early issues in myself and other friends – I suppose it’s not shocking to think that some children are socially awkward at a young age, but it should be alien that that sets you on a path towards a loss of your childhood and imprisonment. There are several points where my story obviously breaks with many of these men. As they continued to express feelings of loss and a lack of support or guidance (along with a disengagement with unsupportive institutions like church, school, or even family sometimes) I saw how I moved myself into these exact categories more. Through the Eyes of the Judged was a reminder of the privilege I face in being motivated and excited in school, regardless of feelings surrounding loneliness, against the breakdown of any academic motivation on the part of some of these guys.

Again, I don’t want to be reductive. These men are fully individual, and it’s difficult to narrow each story enough to provide a universal solution or even analysis. These are immigrants, residents, drug users, pimps, urban youth, alcoholics, fathers, sons, brothers, popular kids, unpopular kids, hustlers, and young men. Society criminalized them long before they were locked up for many reasons, and Gateways remains exciting to me because of its abilities to connect with inmates in a variety of ways. These are creative, earnest young men who are being engaged through Gateways programs, and in the process describing how this allows them to give value to themselves. Gateways is an organization with varied approaches to inmate empowerment, and the results apparently show – the last stat I heard was that the recidivism rate (% of inmates who, after release, will be arrested and imprisoned again) is reversed from 75% for the larger inmate population to 25% for youth involved in Gateways.

It was important to me to read these stories, and I only wish I had more energy and time to provide more of the support I think Gateways and incarcerated youth deserve.

Filed under: Books, Evergreen

SBR 3: The Carnivorous Lamb

Howdy folks! I’m back from a few days in the wild blue yonder, and it was gorgeous. This morning I’ll be playing catch-up on my SBR reviews, and hopefully uploading a picture of the lake or two.

I’ve been reading Agustín Gómez-Arcos’ novel The Carnivorous Lamb on-off for most of this quarter. It parallels much of the thematic work encountered in my readings for class this quarter, though in a different vein. The novel is set in ’70s Spain, in the midst of the Franco regime. It follows a Republican family who remains silent and fragmented by the collapse of their dreams after the Civil War – the youngest son, our protagonist and narrator Ignacio, does not even venture from their home for much of his childhood. The book focuses on the romance between Ignacio and his older brother Antonio, and the intersections their incest has alongside the church, the family name, and society.

The book, written by Gómez-Arcos in exile in France (and originally in French), is bitterly humorous, creating and skewering hypocritical representations of Spanish institutions like the priesthood. The erotic tension and deep passion between brothers remains the only unmocked activity in the work, and produces a well of hope, that the brothers, a younger generation, are not lost to the despair their parents slowly drown in. The Carnivorous Lamb is about as brutal and elegantly written (and translated!) as coming-of-age stories can be, but the destination is much brighter than the journey.

Filed under: Books

SBR 2: The Inferno

Alright, I’ve missed a day already in updating, but not in reading. So, this morning I’ll be posting SBRs (Spring Break Readings) 2 & 3. Today some friends and I are headed to a cabin for a few days, so I will probably be out of internet access and will emerge Thursday or Friday w/ 3 new SBRs. But first, The Inferno, which is my other assigned reading this break.

The Inferno, by Luz Arce, is an account of her time during Chile’s dictatorship, in transition from acting as a militant leftist during the Allende years to being captured after the coup. Arce, after rape, torture, and threats to her family, chooses to collaborate and provide names, eventually working for both CNI and DINE (secret intelligence and police under the dictatorship in Chile). The Inferno acts as a testimonial to these experiences, and is witness to the fear, brutality, isolation, and degradation Arce experiences. The book is scattered, yet precise – it is set as a series of vignettes, which draw on the scars of memory Arce holds to produce something unnervingly lucid almost twenty years after many of the events.

I’ve emerged from the book in a fair bit of conflict. I know I can’t condone what has occurred (and fortunately it’s not my place to), and yet I don’t know if I can’t see Arce as a culprit. She was a collaborator, an informant, and, eventually, an employee of organizations that sought to disappear, murder, censor and repress Chile. Yes, Arce is someone who has directly experienced the brutality and alienation of these groups, these people, but she also went on to do so herself. I guess, as a reader, I left the book unable to forgive Arce for her actions, yet still sickened and horrified by the situations she found herself confronted with. I am touched most by the moments she is able to find some humanity, whether in her first shower, or in seeing her son again; I rage most as she first sets down to write names on paper.

Death permeates everything in The Inferno. My hope is that in writing and exhuming this past, Arce is able to publicly confront the atmosphere of death in Chile under Pinochet.

Filed under: Books, Evergreen

SBR 1: Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden begins my Spring Break Reading personal challenge of finishing a book a day, and writing a short piece about it to go on here.

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman, is, to start with, part of my assigned reading over the break for my class “Literature and the Cultural Politics of Democracy in Chile and Brazil”. The play is set in an unnamed country (though presumably Chile) during a transition out of a long period of military dictatorship (in Chile, Augusto Pinochet) towards the first democratically elected president (Patricio Aylwin) in decades. The president has pushed for a commission to produce a report (the Rettig Report) “to investigate human rights violations that ended in death or the presumption of death”. There are three characters – a judge, Gerardo, assigned to the commission, his wife Paulina, who experienced kidnapping, torture, and rape under the regime (none of which fall under the domain of the commission), and Roberto, a doctor who is potentially the primary rapist and torturer of Paulina. The play follows an intense night and day the three share, with several unnerving turns.

I think there is much to compare and discuss here in relation to the other work of Dorfman’s we’re working with, Widows. Both are concerned with gaps, silences, and truth under dictatorship. The fortunate step Death and the Maiden is able to take Widows never can is to present all of its characters – there is a distinction Dorfman’s work makes between disappearance and torture, and the memories and tensions that these acts produce.

I’m sorry that these comments are fairly brief and initial. But hey, when you’re reading 9 books and trying to relax, developing an essay doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing, sorry. Next up on the list is my other reading for LCPD, Luz Arce’s The Inferno, which is already raising difficult questions for me.

Filed under: Books, Evergreen

A Reading Plan

The quarter has been busy, and highly rewarding – and now for a spring break!

I’ve planned out a slight challenge. This spring break (20 – 28 March), I’ll try to read a book a day, and put up a short blurb about it as well. For example, later today I’ll hopefully have an initial reaction written up to Death and the Maiden.

Sat. March 20
Ariel Dorfman, Death and The Maiden

Sun. March 21
Luz Arce, The Inferno

Mon. March 22
Agustin Gomez-Arcos, The Carnivorous Lamb

Tues. March 23
Various, Through the Eyes of the Judged

Wed. March 24
Charles Norman, E.E. Cummings – Magic Maker

Thur. March 25
Mark Nowak & Amiri Baraka, Shut Up Shut Down

Fri. March 26
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Sat. March 27
Carter Wilson, Crazy February

Sun., March 28
Woody Allen, Mere Anarchy

Filed under: Books, Startup

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