detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Wednesday, April 03, 2002


: . An annual announcement: April is National Poetry Month. If you visit Knopf's poetry site, you can sign up to have a free poem emailed to you daily for as many days as there are in April. Nothing like a dose of high culture to start off your day.

: . I still read poems off and on though not as keenly as I once did. Strange, since so many of my friends still take so much comfort and draw so much pleasure from reading poems. My friend A for example reads the work of June Jordan as well as countless African-American-themed romance novels as a respite from her research on Black Women's History and as a refuge from the indifference or hostility of her white professors. While not a great fan of June Jordan's work, I do remember the first time I heard a reading of what is perhaps her most famous work: Poem About My Rights. It happened while I stood as a spectator to a Take Back the Night rally. I was so stirred up by the power of that poem that as soon as I got home, I felt compelled to read it aloud myself. It was a pathetic act of critical cross-dressing, of posturing as a feminist righteously indignant against injustices I may face in literature but never ever in life.
Other friends have been more successful in trying to draw political strength from mere words. For example, my friend Y, a politically progressive English teacher in a politically progressive chartered school in Queens, reads the work of the 'Black, Militant, Lesbian Poet' poet Audre Lorde to keep herself attuned to the beauty of language while remaining Militant, Lesbian…and Latina. And her efforts seem to have borne fruit. She's been teaching for three years now in the New York City school system and she has not yet lost her sanity, her idealism, and her faith in Paulo Freire.
Y however is a rare exemption. Most of us are lured into poetry for its questionable joys and for the shabby-chic intellectual aura it lends its readers. My friend K., the first among my friends to have a poem published, for example, wrote the full text of T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with multi-colored markers on posterboard then tacked it on her dorm wall presumably as a sign of her refined sensibilities. She always had a knack for quirky observations and an eye and an ear for the grotesque. The first poem of hers that saw publication for example, entitled God Comes in Flocks, had been inspired by the awful, homoerotic, and cannibalistic climax of Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly, Last Summer not as she saw it onstage but as it was presented in a PBS special starring Rob Lowe. Even now, she still recalls how, in the end of the movie Damage, Jeremy Irons, exiled somewhere in the Mediterranean, sliced and then arranged an array of cheeses with such precision that it broke her heart. I only remember the many shots of Jeremy Iron's surprisingly firm ass and the Filipina who played the role of his maid Beth (to be continued...)

: . Two poems from the of The Academy of American Poets website. The first, by Elizabeth Bishop, is one of my favorites, one of the few poems I could recite from memory. The second, yet another from Lucille Clifton, works like a stealth weapon -- funny and understated but with an undercurrent of rage

    One Art
    by Elizabeth Bishop

    The art of losing isn't hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

    --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
    the art of losing's not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

    wishes for sons
    by lucille clifton

    i wish them cramps.
    i wish them a strange town
    and the last tampon.
    I wish them no 7-11.

    i wish them one week early
    and wearing a white skirt.
    i wish them one week late.

    later i wish them hot flashes
    and clots like you wouldn't believe. let the
    flashes come when they
    meet someone special.
    let the clots come
    when they want to.

    let them think they have accepted
    arrogance in the universe,
    then bring them to gynecologists
    not unlike themselves.

: . From transcript of an interview with Jon Ronson, author of Them: Adventures with Extremists:

    I spent a year with an Islamic fundamentalist leader in London called Omar Bakhri Mohammed. And it was just going to be a newspaper article, actually. And he was so unlike one's mental picture of a
    Muslim extremist. He was kind of buffoonish and silly and burlesque. I thought, "That's so interesting. He's not like -- he's not the one-dimensional demon we're -- we're led to believe." I thought -- I wondered if other extremists would be like that. So then I spent a lot of time with a Klan leader who was giving his Klan an image makeover. He kind of figured that the Klan had a bad image, so he wanted to, you know, ban the "N" word and ban the robes and the hoods and the cross-burnings and -- and replace those things with personality seminars, teaching -- teaching their Klansmen to be -- you know, to work out whether they're melancholics or sanguines, and so on. So again, he was very unlike my mental picture of a -- of a Ku Klux Klan leader, this guy. He was nebbishy. He reminded me of Woody Allen. And I thought there was an irony there.
    So then I figured, well, maybe there's a -- there's a whole book in these unexpected portraits of extremist leaders, and I thought it would be funny and -- and there'd be an interesting narrative. And I thought that maybe it would be an interesting way of trying to see our world through their eyes because all the extremists in the book are people who are living among us. They're trying to overthrow our way of life from within. So I thought maybe -- maybe the "them" could be us, as well as them.

Visit Jon Ronson's site for recorded readings of and additional excerpts from his book.

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