Friday, March 11, 2005

Jason Stuart and Steve Evans both question the wisdom of engaging people who, as Steve says, "repeatedly demonstrate contempt for rational discourse." It's an excellent point and one I considered before launching my little salvo. But I felt directly called upon by the attack on Alcalay, whose work I admire so deeply, and since Lapper's article mentioned his presentation at Cornell, which I saw (it was terrific—Jane Sprague published a little chapbook of his talk and I think it's still available from her). The choices are distasteful ones: either we let these people rave on and continue to force the center of our national discourse further and further to the right (it continues to astonish me that capital-E establishment folks like Howard Dean and Dan freaking Rather can be called "liberals"), or we engage them and risk getting their spittle all over our faces. The real task is not engaging in debate, but in reframing it: to make an appearance on the O'Reilly Factor (in the metaphorical sense) is to already have lost the most important battle. In that respect, I may have let myself be baited. But that famous saying of Martin Niemöller's would have haunted me if I'd said nothing or even if I'd just made a few contemptuous remarks here on the blog:
When the Nazis arrested the Communists,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew.
When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.
Fistful of poetry and poetry-related events at Cornell this weekend. Yesterday Norma Cole gave a very moving reading at the A.D. White House: mostly she read from translations of French poets including one, Danielle Collobert, who has an absolutely haunting personal story. Norma Cole is recovering from a stroke: the right side of her body appears to be paralyzed and her speech is halting, though more fluent when she reads. The most emotional moment came when she played a CD of herself reading some translations just before the stroke while she sat to one side and listened to her older, fluent self. But I was struck by the experience of hearing her read in her partially paralyzed voice: it put a new edge, a new inscription, on the language. Most modern French poetry, in my experience, is highly abstract; her shaky voice re-embodied it. I was reminded of the effect Ilya Kaminsky's thick Russiann accent had had on the experience of hearing his own language—the absence of complete fluency really does hit your nervous system differently. It really takes so little to knock the experience of reading off-center and so to enter the sphere of the literary.

This afternoon Anne Carson is giving her talk and I'm certainly eager to hear that. Hopefully arriving in time for that talk will be Peter Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis, who have come to read in our Soon reading series tomorrow at 8 PM at the State of the Art Gallery in Ithaca. I've met Peter once briefly but I'm looking forward to meeting him in earnest. And of course I'm excited about meeting Elizabeth, who is one of my grood poets. Not least, tomorrow Leslie Scalapino will be giving a talk. It's a veritable festival of postmodern poetry, folks—join us if you can.

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