Friday, November 05, 2004

What a terrible irony that the least moral person ever to have served as president of the United States, a man pathologically incapable of speaking the truth, should be returned to office because of “moral values.” What a terrible fate for the people of the Middle East. And for the people of the Midwest as well.


“Moral values” is nothing more than code for a series of social wedge issues, especially gay marriage, and it is doubly ironic that Bush should have received the support of nearly 79 percent of those who went to the polls claiming that “moral values” was their primary concern, more than the economy, more than terrorism, more than the spiraling deficit. Doubly ironic because it was patently clear than John Kerry wasn’t going to do anything to actively further the aspirations of gay men & women to the same equalities promised all Americans under the Constitution. Ever the cautious man, Kerry saw how badly damaged Bill Clinton’s first year in office was because precisely because he attempted, in one bold stroke, to eliminate discrimination in the military on the basis of sexual orientation. Kerry spent the campaign running away from the issue.


It is pathetic that, when confronted with real threats – Osama bin Laden, Halliburton, the pending collapse of Social Security, ongoing job loss, the prospect of an even more reactionary Supreme Court led by Antonin Scalia, the end of Roe v. Wade, fundamentalisms of all manner – what Americans really fear most is kari edwards. And Dennis Cooper, Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Samuel R. Delaney, David Melnick & Kevin Killian. How sick is that?


Homophobia in an individual is a mental illness. On a social scale, it is dangerous & ridiculous. The Republican politicians who used it to turn out what Karl Rove liked to refer to as the 4,000,000 “missing evangelicals” who had failed to show up for W in 2000 know full well that homophobia as social policy is a form of hatred that has a limited lifespan. If you poll people by age groups, people currently under 30 have no interest in oppressing their peers, regardless of what their political positions might be on other issues. This generation has grown up with out-of-the-closet models of successful & well-adjust gay men & women everywhere, even in small town rural “red state” America. They don’t see Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a threat to anyone.


That’s not true for older age cohorts – I know at least one major poet in his sixties who is perfectly out to his friends, but not at all publicly, even now. He lives & teaches in a red state. The GOP and the political wing of the born-again movement know full well that they can only slow down the evolution of human rights, but also that they can slow it down significantly – by a generation at least – if they can enshrine hatred in the U.S. Constitution. So I expect that we will see a serious effort to do just that. And I would not be shocked to see a Right to Life amendment follow suit.


Rep. Barney Frank & others – especially within the blue dog Democrat circle just to Frank’s right – will argue that it was the intemperate over-reaching of a few gay men & women, aided by the foolish pandering of pols like Gavin Newsom, the mayor in San Francisco, who inadvertently gave us four more years of W’s depredations. The public, they would argue, needs to be educated. By being two steps ahead of public acceptance, gay men & women who seek the right to marry inadvertently provoked the reaction that Bush rode to his second term.


I reject that argument completely. I don’t think that you can ask people to wait to be free. If we followed that logic, we would still be talking about the best ways to get rid of slavery. And whether women should have the vote. It is precisely the kind of pushing-the-envelope that we have seen in San Francisco & elsewhere that actually educates people & changes minds. But nobody said this would be easy.


Further, I think that this is a short term victory for the forces of darkness, at least on this front. If anything, giving hatred full voice in the Constitution can only widen the gap between the GOP and younger voters. Even worse than appearing a bully is appearing a fool – the current leadership of the Republican party is both. If we can just keep this new generation of voters, who turned out for Kerry by nearly 60 percent, from drifting rightward as they age, there’s hope.


That’s a significant if of course. The Republican Party has over 100 years of experience – at least since Boss Hanna morphed it into its current manifestation of the party of the “Haves and the Have Mores,” circa 1900 – getting people to vote against their own self-interest.


Case in point. One comment in response to my note last Monday about working to get out the vote was a note from Gerard Vanderluen, someone I’ve known slightly since the days when we both read in the open readings at Shakespeare & Co. Books in Berkeley, circa 1965. Vanderluen went on to become a successful writer & editor, and ultimately the IT director, for Penthouse. Somewhere along the way, he became some kind of superpatriot also, or so I gather from his blog. His vote, he notes, cancelled out mine (tho my get-out-the-vote work multiplied my one vote several times over, Gerard, and I will note that my swing state voted my way on the presidency – how did your state do?). My thought today is this: doesn’t Vanderluen realize that his sort is right on the bullseye on the hit list of the GOP “values” coalition? Out of just such muddled thinking was the Bush coalition cobbled.


The next few years will prove to be exceptionally important – and exceptionally stressful, I would wager – for all of us. The future direction of the Republican Party is no more clear than that of the Democrats. The punditocracy is already tossing out names for the ’08 race (Bush will be a lame duck faster than any of his predecessors I suspect, tho that may have more to do with the nature of media than with his own limitations): Clinton vs. McCain, Dean vs. Giuliani, Bill Frist vs. Bill Richardson, Edwards vs. Rice. The reality is that the coalitions that will determine the next presidential contest are already starting to form, although nobody – literal number – nobody understands even remotely right now what they will look like.


The Democratic center, especially the Democratic Leadership Coalition has now had its man in place for two elections in a row & so far had nothing to show for it.* Are the Democrats crazy enough to try that a third time? If the blue dogs can pin this election loss on gay rights activists, they will. The reality is that the Dems had only one person in the race who actually articulated any reason to vote above & beyond not being Bush – that was Howard Dean. Tho I’m sure that Dean is planning to run – I may even support him – it is very rare in history that anyone has the opportunity to make two serious attempts at that office. Look at Sam Nunn, who could have had the ’92 nomination just for asking. He decided to wait until he had a “clear shot” in 1996 instead, only to have Clinton come in & beat Bush I. One result: this was the first year since 1992 that the Democrats have had an open race at all for the nomination. And 2008, presuming that Cheney’s heart holds up the full four years**, will be the first time since 1952 where that may be true of both parties. Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, the two ’52 non-incumbents, set the table for the whole of the Cold War. We wouldn’t have had the Vietnam War without that race & those contestants***, maybe not even the sixties, at least not in the way we imagine them now, certainly not the Nixon administration, not Watergate & thus not Ford, Carter or Reagan.


For the time being, however, we have real – and for the most part defensive – battles to make: to try & save Roe v. Wade, to get our troops out of Iraq, to keep Social Security alive & preserve what little accessibility to affordable health care still remains. It’s time to get busy.




* It likes to claim Clinton as well, but he won not because of the DLC or his centrism, but because Ross Perot crippled the GOP in two straight elections.


** If that pump gives out, expect W to give somebody a leg up on the nomination via appointment. For this reason alone, I wish Mr. Cheney the best of health.


*** They both ran again in ’56, but by then Ike was the incumbent.


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Of all the literary tendencies associated with the New American Poetry in the 1950s & ‘60s, just one continues to both thrive & evolve in something remotely similar to its classic form. And that is the New York School.


By the New York School, tho, here in 2004, I don’t mean every young poet who happens to be living in New York (and certainly not Brooklyn). I mean pretty much gens one through three, or thereabouts, back when the NY School was an identifiable t’ing.


It makes enormous sense, for example, that the literary tendency whose one major theoretical statement was Frank O’Hara’s tongue-in-cheek manifesto, “Personism,” should emerge four decades hence as the one that truly values the memoir as a form. I would wager that some four decades further down the road, we’ll see that the memoir is as important to the NY School as critical writing was to the Projectivists (Olson’s Mayan Letters, Human Universe, Call Me Ishmael, Creeley’s A Quick Graph, Duncan’s The H.D. Book, the writing of Gilbert Sorrentino). Nobody seems to get this more clearly than does Ron Padgett, who in addition to being a super poet & great translator has evolved into the finest memoirista of a generation that is just one step older than my own.


Following the diary of a trip to Albania & memoirs of Ted Berrigan & his own father, Joe is Padgett’s fourth venture into the form. It’s a lengthy, rich, elegant portrait of painter & writer Joe Brainard, whom Padgett met literally in first grade (the class photo faces the first full page of text).


As such, their relationship may well have been the earliest in getting started of any collaboration in the arts anywhere on the part of writers or artists who were not blood relations. That is, if you think of it, an enormous stroke of luck. Leslie Scalapino & I grew up within two miles of one another & I think we even graduated from high school in the same year, but I wouldn’t meet her until we were both adults – that’s more the usual circumstance, alas. Thus I didn’t get to know Steve Vincent, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Davidson or Barrett Watten either for quite a long time. I met Barrett first when I was 18 and he was 16 or 17. All the rest turned up quite a bit later. I don’t think much more than five or six miles separated the six of us during at least some of those years in the 1950s & early ‘60s. Yet you know somebody as a kid in ways that are very different from the ways that are available to grownups.


One can still fairly claim that Brainard is one of the most severely underrated artists of his generation, though the fault for that is largely his own. He must have distrusted the ease with which some things came to him, for he seems to have been perpetually unsatisfied with his work and did everything he could over the last 15 years of his life to avoid the sort of major shows it clearly warranted. When his posthumous retrospective appeared at the UC Art Museum in Berkeley (it later toured, ending up at P.S. 1 in New York), the range, depth & especially the darkness of some of the work were major revelations. His assemblages & altars in particular were completely new to me & show a side of him not apparent in his paintings, drawings, book illustrations, nor in his writing.


When I was in San Francisco last month, I had a bookseller tell me passionately that “I don’t care what the critics say, I Remember is the greatest long poem of the 20th century.” I might not agree with that, but I certainly can hear it, certainly can imagine the parallel universe in which that statement is absolutely true. It is a remarkable work not for its form, but its attention to detail – it chronicles its present more fully than any other text of the past 40 years.


Padgett’s memoir is written in short chapters – visually, they look like separate pieces, but they read as a sustained (if episodic) narrative. In many ways, this is an interesting book to put alongside Padgett’s first such effort, Ted. I like Ted a lot, but Padgett has grown enormously as a prose writer over the past decade & Joe is a lightyear beyond his earlier effort, so much so, in fact, that I’d love to see Padgett revisit his relationship with Ted Berrigan.


It turns out, of course, that a major reality of the New York School, especially in its second generation, is its relationship to Tulsa. Padgett is the one real connection to that nexus we have left. We are fortunate that he’s so generous with this heritage.



Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Six girls from a rural village in Burkina Faso escape from a “purification” ceremony, the female circumcision ritual that is still practiced in 34 of the 58 nations in the African Union. Two head for the city. The other four know of a woman in the village who, some years earlier, had prevented her own daughter from being cut. They run to her home, where she is the second of three wives of a man whose brother is a figure in the town’s power structure. To protect them, she pronounces a moolaadé, an unbreakable spell of sanctuary that can only be dissolved by her word, and which is marked simply by stretching some colored strands of yarn across the enclave’s doorway.


This is the narrative set up of Ousmane Sembene’s latest film, Moolaadé, which had its Philadelphia debut in a packed (literally sitting in the aisles) auditorium at the International House cinema last week. How will the townspeople react to this open rebellion against female genital mutilation? How will the men who govern the town respond? What about the women who actually perform these ceremonies, presented in the film virtually as a coven of witches dressed entirely in red? And, especially, what about the town’s other women? Will Collé Gallo Ardo Sy recant the mooladé? Will the village ever again be the same?


All these questions are literally put on the table in the first ten minutes of this remarkable motion picture, beautifully filmed & amazingly acted, full of agitprop theatrics & yet as tightly & deeply scripted – I mean this literally – as any Shakespearean tragedy. That’s a combination that is uniquely the signature of Africa’s master film maker, Ousmane Sembene.


Had Sembene not been drafted into the French army in his native Senegal at the age of 15 in 1939, he might not have joined the Free French forces fighting the Nazis in ’42 & thus might not have ended up after the war in France, working on the docks in Marseilles, where he wrote and published his first novel, Le Docker noir in 1956. It was not usual in the 1950s that a man of his class background in Senegal – not a member of any tribal elite – even learned to read, let alone became a critically & financially successful intellectual on a world scale. Which must be why Sembene made a conscious decision to study film at the All Russia State Institute for Cinematography founded by Eisenstein & at Gorki Studios in Moscow. In 1966, three years after returning to Senegal, the then-43-year-old Sembene released La Noire de . . ., the first feature-length motion picture produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. His films, which can stand up alongside the best of Bergman, Kurosawa or Godard, are intended for audiences who will see them sitting on dirt floors in African villages.


Feminist themes are common in Sembene’s work. Ceddo, my favorite of the three earlier pictures of Sembene’s that I’ve seen, looks at Islamic imperialism in Sub-Saharan Africa precisely in terms of what it meant for the role of women in the tribes. Colonialism, contemporary issues of globalization, modernity & identity are all heightened when viewed through the lens of gender relations. Addressing one must mean addressing all & nobody is in a better position to do so than someone whose identity is both defined & constrained by her gender. On a continent where the ratio of resources to human beings would render an economic determinist suicidal, Sembene has come up with a particularly radical prescription – the path through globalization has to proceed through feminism first.


“The West is never my reference,” Sembene says in the Q&A period that follows the picture. He’s explaining why it’s not a problem that his work tends to be put into a third-world ghetto at European film festivals, even though it plays to packed houses, enthusiastic audiences & consistently wins prizes. Moolaadé, for example, won the Un Certain Regard award this year at Cannes & was relegated to the Planet Africa series at Turin.


Yet, in fact, Moolaadé is very much about the confrontation of rural Africa with the forces of globalization. The girls who flee their mutilation do so because they’ve seen the consequences – dead sisters, maimed women – up close & personal. The city – urbanization – is the refuge that two seek (and when they don’t get there, the consequences are grave). The men in the village respond first by banning radios – one sees here an economy that built around bread and the access to batteries – which are piled outside of the local mosque (where they are left on to play music & some news throughout the entire film up to their climactic scene). When tensions & actions escalate & the men in the village coerce Collé’s husband into whipping her in public, the person who steps in to stop the violence is the itinerant shopkeeper, Mercenaire, expelled from the military & living by cheating everybody with a smile in return for his shiny western goods – batteries most of all – who steps in to protect her. And when, finally, the women of the entire village, save for the mutilating witches, revolt against the men, it is the French-schooled son of the chief who lets it be known that he not only is willing to marry a woman who is bilakoro, uncircumcised, but will go beyond the ban against radios, even to the point of having television. What ultimately rescues the women is not just courage & solidarity – the victory comes at a heavy cost – but modernity itself. It is precisely the inability of the village to seal itself off from the influences of history, whether in the form of TV, radio, condoms or AIDS posters, that the women’s victory will not be overturned.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004



Take a photo i.d. with you when you go to the polls, just in case . . .


If someone interferes with your right to vote:


  1. Document it

    Write down exactly what happened and the names of the people involved.


  1. Then report it

    Fill out the problem form at

    - Call 1-866-MY-VOTE 1 to leave a message about your problem

    - If you need immediate legal assistance, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
    This is the 911 of voter hotlines – only use it if there is a serious problem.

DNC Voter Hotlines in selected states:


AR 1-866-999-VOTE (8683)

AZ 1-877-AZVOTES (298-6837)


FL 1-800-WIN-FL-04 (946-3504)


IA 1-800-519-3502


LA 1-866-788-8967


ME 1-800-651-VOTE (8683)


MI 1-866-722-2483


MN 1-888-424-2004


NH 1-877-239-VOTE (8683)


NV 1-877-WE-VOTE2 (938-6832)


OH 1-877-228-1452


OR 1-877-640-8811


PA 1-866-PA-VOTE9 (728-6839)


VA 1-800-322-1144


WI 1-866-WI-POLLS (947-6557)


WV 1-866-WV-VOTER (988-6837)


Find your polling place:


Learn your voting rights:


Election Protection Resources



Monday, November 01, 2004

Tomorrow, I’m taking the day off work. After a doctor’s appointment in the morning, I will be doing a four-hour stint at my local precinct as an official poll watcher technically from the Jim Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower is the democratic candidate for attorney general here in Pennsylvania, although you might not know that there’s even a race if you lived here. Unlike California, where there is a mountain of detail available on every single candidate, plus the attraction of propositions, starting with a document prepared and sent by the State Registrar of Voters that is the size of a small phone book with detail on every candidate, including lists of those who signed the initial campaign documents to get him or her onto the ballot, Pennsylvania does nothing – zero, zip – to inform its citizens about the nature of the forthcoming election. They don’t event send a card when they move your polling place. Similarly, California makes it easy to vote absentee and a lot of people – seniors, especially – make great use of this. In Pennsylvania, it’s not impossible, but it’s quite a bit of work and you have go through the process each election.


Decades of a Republican-controlled state legislature have done what they can in Pennsylvania to depress the vote. As is increasingly self-evident, minimizing participation in elections is a basic Republican strategy to ensure their continued rule here. It may not be as crudely done as is the case in Florida or Ohio, but it’s still the basic dynamic.


Tomorrow also marks the 42nd anniversary of the first time I “worked a precinct” in an election. In 1962 – not a presidential year – I was working for the re-election of California’s Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown against former VP Dick Nixon. I wasn’t old enough to vote, yet, but at 16 I was old enough to help get the vote out, so I did.


I wasn’t all that terribly impressed with Pat Brown, but I thought that Nixon was outright dangerous. History, as it turns out, proved me right. Now all these decades later, I find myself living about six blocks from one of Nixon’s daughters – she’s active in the GOP out here, her husband (also an Eisenhower & a distant relation of my candidate tomorrow) works at Penn. And again I’m working primarily for a candidate – in this instance, John Kerry – about whom I’m not all that thrilled. And again, I think the opposition is positively dangerous.


George W. Bush has proven to be the worst president in the history of the United States. In 500 years, if America has ceased to exist as a major world power & even as a recognizable polity, historians will look at his administration as a significant hinge event from which this nation never recovered. That seems to me a very real possibility.


I don’t need to recite the various crimes which this man has committed. That this man has not been impeached – let alone prosecuted – where his predecessor was virtually placed into stocks over fibbing about a blowjob is an index of just how rabid & toxic the far-right’s control of the legislative branch of government has become.


What worries me most about the prospect of a second term is Bush’s potential for remaking the courts – a woman’s right to choose will simply not exist in four years if he’s re-elected – the long-term impact of having eight years of a justice department that is dedicated to eradicating the Bill of Rights in the name of national security, and the long-term devastation that the neocon lust to remake the Middle East is going to cause not just there, but across the entire planet. Sacrificing our national infrastructure and well-being to enrich a narrow group of billionaires is the least of our problems, frankly.


My greatest concern over John Kerry is that I’m not convinced that he will do what is necessary to extricate ourselves from Iraq before the body count goes from 1,000 to 5,000. We need to acknowledge up front what should be obvious to any neutral observer – that the center there will not hold, that there will eventually be a civil war and a division of that nation into at least three separate states, one Sunni, one Shiite & one Kurdish. What we need to accomplish is to prevent this devolution from turning into a general war, with Iran invading from the East, Turkey from the North. We could even help this transition from one state into three to occur in a relatively peaceful manner, but I’m hardly optimistic about that.


What I like most about Kerry is that he treats complexity as complex. At one very real level, this election pits those who can cope with complexity against those who would rather deny it. One sees these latter people at the cinema, they govern what gets watched on television, they’re even the heart of the professional book industry in this country. George W. Bush is their man because he refuses to admit mistakes or take in nuances. That’s what his base likes about him most.


It’s not that complexity is an inherently leftward leaning virtue. Michael Moore’s success is very much the result of his ability to demonstrate what a left version of simplicity politics could look like. But an awfully large part of the culture wars can be traced back to this exact divide. And, as the Bush administration has shown in appointing Dana Gioia to head up the NEA & naming the likes of Ted Kooser & Billy Collins as poet laureate, there’s a divide in poetry over the question as well. [One might argue, in fact, that the division between the post-avant world & that of the School o’ Quietude arises precisely because the former is far more comfortable with complexity – although even there we find exceptions, anti-intellectual post-avants, distressing as that is.]


So I think that tomorrow is a hinge election. All the rhetoric about this being “the most important election in our lifetime” turns out to be right. It’s my eleventh presidential campaign and vastly more critical than any of the previous ten.


My task at the polls tomorrow is to see to it that everyone who comes gets to vote & to make note of who comes. Later in the day, we’ll be doing get-out-the-vote work, calling, going door to door, offering to drive people, offering to watch the kids, whatever. I’ll be working tomorrow as if the very future of this country depends on the outcome. Because, in fact, it does.