Category Archives: Books

Tips for Reading in Your Midwestern Hometown         

Today’s blog post is inspired by Courtney Kersten’s appearance at The Local Store in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where she read from her recently published debut memoir Daughter in Retrograde.

Avoid flippancy as you pack your bag in California. Yes, you really will need wool socks. No, despite any Midwestern fantasy of that one spring where it hit 82º, it won’t happen again. Yes, do bring pantyhose if you’re really going to wear that skirt. Bring your reading glasses. Bring that chamomile tincture. Don’t leave the door without deodorant.

Embrace the urge to ask the flight attendant on your flight from San Jose to Minneapolis for another Biscoff cookie. She’ll hand you three and tell you to stash them quickly. You do. You take her generosity as an omen of good luck. You realize you forgot your book.

When you arrive in your old home, embrace the brown leather jacket your father found in his closet that might be a forgotten leftover from his ex-wife. You look at the tag. You smell the armpits. You dig in the pockets and find a creased receipt. It’s dated from February 2001, a Gordy’s grocery store purchase of one rotisserie chicken. You’re not sure what this means. You decide to wear the coat. You may even take it home with you.

While strolling around your hometown before your reading, avoid the westside Dairy Queen where you once locked yourself in the bathroom as a child and screamed until you heard your mother’s voice on the other side. If you were to return, it would feel metaphorical. Avoid the park where you and your mother once threw bread to the ducks. This wouldn’t feel metaphorical, but it would smear your mascara. Avoid the mall where you and your mother spent hours shimmying in and out of jeans. Avoid the streets around the hospital and the entirety of downtown Chippewa Falls. These places would derail you entirely.

Avoid eating all three Biscoff cookies still stashed in your bag before reading. You’ll fantasize about their sweet snap. You’ll desire their powder on your fingers. You anticipate that it would be reassuring—they were your omen of good luck, weren’t they? You eat all of them five minutes before you’re supposed to read.

Now, embrace the water fountain. Embrace drinking slow. Embrace the book your Aunt Delores offers to let you read from. Embrace the heat shuddering through the vents, causing you to sweat—maybe this is your Midwestern fantasy come true. Maybe you didn’t need those wool socks after all . . .  Embrace the familiar sight of slush near the door reminding you that, yes, you really did need them. Embrace the nostalgia that blossoms within you upon seeing this dirty snow. Embrace turning to the podium and opening your book.

Avoid the quavering that wants to creep in your voice. Avoid that old tick of rocking back and forth in your shoes. Avoid channeling your nervousness into your hands that want to grip the sides of the podium—this may seem bizarre. You don’t want to seem bizarre, but calm and confident—though every sensation pulsing through your body assures you that, indeed, you are not. Avoid fixating on this.

Embrace the silence of an audience listening. Embrace your friends and family who clap for you. Embrace their hugs and congratulatory words whispered into your ear. Embrace the knowledge that the only reason you are here, in your hometown, reading a book you wrote, is because of their role in your life. Embrace this gratitude. Allow it to sit with you like a kitten curling up next to you, snug and purring. Allow this to glide you home and lull you to sleep. Embrace this tranquility.

Courtney Kersten is an essayist and scholar. A native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, she teaches creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her essays can be found in River TeethHotel AmerikaDIAGRAM, The Sonora ReviewBlack Warrior Review, and The Master’s Review.

 

New Books & New Paperbacks, May 2018

We’re pleased to announce the following books to be published this month.

May 8, 2018
Death Rides the Ferry
Patricia Skalka

“An intricate, intriguing plot in which Door County Sheriff Dave Cubiak can stop a ruthless killer only by finding the link between a spate of murders and a forty-year-old mystery.”—Michael Stanley, author of the Detective Kubu series

“Skalka is equally skilled at evoking the beloved Door County landscape and revealing the complexities of the human heart, as Sheriff Cubiak’s latest case evokes personal demons. This thought-provoking mystery, set in a beautiful but treacherous environment, is sure to please.”—Kathleen Ernst, author of The Light Keeper’s Legacy

 

May 15, 2018
Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet
Michael J. Lazzara

Critical Human Rights

“Original, engaging, and direly needed. Lazzara, one of the leading scholars writing on human rights, memory, and trauma in Chile and Argentina, looks at the many ethical positions civilians have latched onto to save face in the decades since the Pinochet dictatorship.”—Greg Dawes, author of Verses Against the Darkness

“Provocative, conceptually powerful, and fluidly expressed, Lazzara’s book forces a reckoning with the active, ample ways Chileans violently transformed politics, the economy, and the social fabric to lasting effect and amid ongoing denial. The arguments and implications extend well beyond Chile to our own politics and societies.”—Katherine Hite, author of Politics and the Art of Commemoration

 

May 29, 2018
Heinrich Himmler’s Cultural Commissions: Programmed Plunder in Italy and Yugoslavia
James R. Dow

“Unshrouds folklore’s manipulation by Nazi leaders, and thank goodness for that, even if it is uncomfortable to confront. Dow has unearthed, and deftly explained, an incredible storehouse of material from Himmler’s cultural commissions, probably the largest organized field collecting project in history. The lessons he astutely draws are critical for understanding the Nazi era and are relevant to today’s cultural politics. A great achievement.”—Simon J. Bronner, author of Explaining Traditions

“Dow analyzes the motives of the protagonists of Himmler’s Cultural Commissions, and his treatment of the ideological preconditions for the field investigations is compelling. A major contribution to our understanding of Nazism.”—Konrad Köstlin, University of Vienna

 

May 31, 2018
Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946

Now in Paperback
James P. Leary

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest

• Grammy Nominee
• Winner, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Best Historical Research in Folk or World Music

“A stunning work of curation and scholarship. . . . Whether you’re a music-maker or just a listener, reader, and thinker, there’s a surprise on every track and every page.”Huffington Post

“A treasure. . . . Leary’s deep knowledge of the subject matter is demonstrated by thought-provoking facts placing the dance tunes, ballads, lyrics songs, hymns, political anthems, and more in historical context.”Library Journal

“A landmark. . . . Attains the highest standards of folklore studies.”Journal of Folklore Research

Hunting New Coverts

Today’s guest blogger is Mark Parman, whose new book of hunting essays, Among the Aspen, we published this week.

The publication of my book Among the Aspen has been a bittersweet experience. Between the writing and editing of my manuscript, we moved from our longtime home in Wausau to a small cabin 160 miles away in northwestern Wisconsin. Not only were we leaving behind our friends and home, but all of the coverts I had discovered, cultivated, and hunted for the past 25 years. These places were old friends, and I wasn’t ready to say farewell.

The book is organized around the places I hunt. Each chapter focuses on one of my coverts, special places where I had gained so much and also left behind a part of myself. As a much younger man, I shot my first grouse in New Wood and my first woodcock at Swanda’s. At that time, I didn’t even have a dog since we were renting an apartment. The dogs would come later and create an even stronger connection to my coverts. So, when my new book arrived in the mail and I cracked open its stiff spine and crisp pages, what struck me first was what I had left behind.

On the other hand, it’s immensely satisfying to hold one’s own just-published book. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and long hours, but for me it is also a concrete record of some of the things that happened in those places, which nobody can take away. I could always turn to these pages and revisit these sweet lands. When my dogs Fergus and Jenkins are gone, I will still have this, a record of my roaming through the autumn woods with them doing what we love best—hunting grouse and woodcock.

A few of the essays in Among the Aspen are drawn from experiences near our new home in Seeley. As I write this in April of 2018, the Triangle, which I pass by several times each day, is still buried under a foot of snow. No woodcock are performing the sky dance there—yet. This past October, I was almost home and could smell the wood smoke from our chimney when Fergus slammed into a point. We were walking an old logging road that’s slowly reverting to balsam fir, white pine, and birch. It’s not really ideal cover, so I was surprised when a woodcock twittered up and flushed to the north. Several more times this past season, the dogs pointed woodcock here, surprising me each time, so I’ve dubbed this place Woodcock Surprise.

I hunted new cover with my dogs on nearly every outing last season. I’m learning new landscapes and finding new coverts. More important, I’m making fresh memories and creating new stories, like the nine snow-roosting grouse that surprised Jenkins and me . . . Well, that’s a story for another book!

Mark Parman is the author of A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac and a contributor to A Passion for Grouse. He is a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society, American Woodcock Society, and Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters. He taught English for many years at the University of Wisconsin–Marathon County in Wausau. He lives near Seeley, Wisconsin.

J.D. SALINGER, NAZIS, AND VEDANTA HINDUSIM

Eberhard Alsen’s new book, J.D. Salinger and the Nazis, is published today. We interviewed Alsen about his work.

 

Q. When did you first read any fiction by J.D. Salinger?

A. I became a Salinger fan in 1966 after reading “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and the rest of his Nine Stories. After that I read the other six Glass Family Stories. Only much later did I read The Catcher in the Rye, the novel for which Salinger is best known.

Q. What is it about Salinger that led you to become a scholar of his work and life?

A. By following up on the many references to Vedanta Hinduism in Salinger’s stories I discovered that he had been taking courses at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York. I enrolled in a seminar similar to the one Salinger took, and I travelled from Cortland, New York, to New York City every Friday for six months. This was in 1977. In 1978, I was invited to a Ramakrishna Center retreat on an island in the St. Lawrence River where we did an intensive study of the Upanishads. Salinger had attended that same retreat a few years earlier. In short, Salinger inspired me to convert to Vedanta Hinduism.

My first Salinger book, Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel, is an interpretation of the seven Glass Family Stories in terms of their Vedanta ideas. The impetus for that book came from Salinger’s inscription in a book he gave to his teacher Swami Nikhilananda. In that inscription, he says that he wrote Franny and Zooey “to circulate the ideas of Vedanta.”

Q. In your research on Salinger’s WWII experiences, what discoveries surprised you?

A. Everyone who has written about Salinger’s war experiences claims that the nervous breakdown he suffered after the end of the war was due to the stress of combat. But Salinger was not a combat soldier. He was an agent for the Counter Intelligence Corps. The daily reports of his CIC detachment in the National Archives show that he never fought the Germans in battle because he did his CIC work well behind the front lines.

Q. As a native of Germany, what special skills or insights were you able to bring to the research of this book?

A. First of all, I still read and speak German very well because, after I moved to the United States in 1962, I have regularly gone back to Germany, on three occasions to teach at German universities. I therefore had no problems evaluating German documents relating to Salinger’s activities in Germany.

Also I have a good understanding of the German military that Salinger faced because my father was an officer in the Wehrmacht and because I myself served in the post-war German Army.

And finally, I understand what Salinger’s problems were in rounding up old Nazis after the end of the war because my father was a Nazi, and I have many documents relating to my father’s denazification.

CIC officers at work

Q. Did Salinger participate in the Denazification Progam, and what did that program entail?

A. After his discharge from the U.S. Army in November of 1945, Salinger signed up for an additional six-month stint as a special investigator for the Counter Intelligence Corps. His task was to track down and arrest Nazis who had gone into hiding, so they could be brought before a Denazification Court. Even before Germany and Austria had been completely occupied, the Allies––the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France––had created the Denazification Program. Its aim was to remove all Nazi officials from positions of influence and to punish all former members of the Nazi Party for having supported an evil regime.

Eberhard Alsen

Eberhard Alsen is a professor emeritus of English at Cortland College, State University of New York. He is the author of several books, including A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger and Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel.

The Day that Baseball Died in Milwaukee

Our guest blogger today is Patrick Steele. His new book, Home of the Braves: The Battle for Baseball in Milwaukee, is published today.

For thirteen seasons, Milwaukee Braves fans had gathered to celebrate the opening of the baseball season with enthusiasm, hope, and lots of beer. The secular holiday, still celebrated today near the remains of old County Stadium, was the sign that winter was over and spring was finally at hand. But 1966 was different. Instead, the Braves celebrated Opening Day in Atlanta, Georgia, where they played the Pittsburgh Pirates before a crowd of little more than 50,000 at their new ballpark. One fan in the stands suggested that it was hard to get excited because they “had to go north and import a bunch of damn Yankees from Milwaukee” and that Atlanta “ought to have our own ball club.”[1] Most Milwaukee fans would have taken the team back in a heartbeat, but that was not to be.

It is hard to grasp in 2018 what it must have felt like in April 1966 when the major league baseball season began without Milwaukee represented among its ranks. County Stadium was ready for the new season, but the grandstands and concourses were empty. Stadium workers had groomed the infield and even went so far as to put the tarp upon it, in case of rain. William Anderson, the stadium manager told reporters that they could not risk leaving it off because if it rained, “you would have had mud. It’s just a normal precaution.”[2] The outfield padding was placed upon the walls and crews continued to prepare for games, and frankly, a season that would never come.

 

County Stadium employee Eugene Sabinash listens to

County Stadium employee Eugene Sabinash listens to a baseball game on his transistor radio while sitting in the grandstand on what was supposed to be the Milwaukee Braves’ 1966 home opener on April 12, 1966. Amid battling court orders, the Braves played in Atlanta instead. This photo was published in the April 12, 1966, Milwaukee Journal. (Photo: S.Niels Lauritzen/Milwaukee Journal)

Rather than live baseball at County Stadium, Milwaukee fans were to get their baseball fix through television. Twenty-five Saturday games were scheduled to be broadcast throughout southeastern Wisconsin on WTMJ television, in addition to three holiday games and the All Star game.[3] This was a sad consolation for an area that had supported baseball in record numbers. Even worse, this would be the first season without professional or minor league baseball since the late 1800s.

Milwaukee would miss out on Opening Day celebrations until 1970 when major league baseball formally returned to the city with the introduction of the Milwaukee Brewers. The team was greeted warmly when they arrived in Wisconsin, but they were not out of the shadow of the Braves. Many fans were excited about the prospects of the new team, but others still reminisced about the 1953 opener between the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. Even Milwaukee County Board chairman Eugene Grobschmidt opined that the crowd that greeted the Brewers when they arrived in Wisconsin was bigger than the crowds that had met the Braves after their arrival from Boston. He was optimistic that the team would draw at least one million fans in 1970 because the people are “sore, and they are going to show the world we are a baseball city.”[4]

Image result for Brewers opening day

It would not be until 1973, however, that attendance reached the million fans per year mark, although since then the Brewers have failed only twice to draw at least one million, in 1974 and in the strike-shortened year of 1981. But every year, regardless of the team’s standing the previous year, Opening Day has remained a special celebration across Southeastern Wisconsin. It will be celebrated soon, but one cannot escape the ghosts of the Milwaukee Braves that day. You will still see Braves caps emblazoned with the white “M” worn proudly amidst the sea of blue-and-gold Brewers gear.

 

Patrick Steele

[1] “Braves Draw Light Yawn”, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 13, 1966.
[2] Alicia Armstrong, “Stadium Deserted”, Milwaukee Journal, April 12, 1966.
[3] “Area to Get Baseball TV”, Milwaukee Journal, April 13, 1966.
[4] “Games Expected To Draw Million”, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 7, 1970.

 

Patrick W. Steele is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin. He is a member of the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association.

the grand experiment of embodied, earthly love

Today’s guest blogger is Erin White. Her book published today, Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief, is a candid and revelatory memoir  of her hunger for both romantic and divine love. Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks, comments, “Reckoning with the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith, Erin O. White has written that rare and wonderful thing: an intimately personal page-turner that raises complex questions about the wider world and our future in it.” In this post, she writes about the representations of queer love in popular media.

Recently my wife and I watched “San Junipero,” an episode of Netflix’s dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror. “San Junipero” first aired in 2016, and is beloved enough to have a Spotify playlist with 50,000 followers. I hope that I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning that the episode is about queer love in the time of virtual reality.

When the show opens, it’s 1987 in San Junipero, a European seaside town where young people with big hair dance to T’Pau and play Top Speed, then drive around in jeeps on dark, sandy roads. San Junipero is perfect and beautiful, but it doesn’t exist. Or, more precisely, it exists only in people’s minds. It’s a simulated, virtual reality. Elderly people are allowed to spend five hours a week there, and before dying, can make the decision to go to San Junipero permanently, to spend eternity dancing to Robert Palmer.

“San Junipero” is essentially a love story, and what’s remarkable about it—what is still, in 2018, remarkable—is that it’s about two women. I recently read that the series creator, Charlie Brooker, originally wrote the episode for a heterosexual couple, but then decided to rewrite it for two women.

Brooker’s rewrite interests me.  Why did he decide to tinker with the protagonists’ sexual orientation? Part of me doesn’t want to overthink it, to just enjoy the women’s chemistry and banter and sex, and be grateful for the revision. Part of me wants to think that Brooker thought—as I do—that introducing complex queer characters into any narrative makes that narrative better (Brooker is quoted as saying it was “more fun” to write for two women.) But I can’t help but want to take a closer look.  After all, how, exactly, is “San Junipero” different than all the other movies and tv shows that employ the “bury your gays” trope?

As is so often the case when queer people are represented in the media, it’s complicated. Here’s a story about two funny, beautiful, clever women in love. Marvelous! But here’s what’s not so marvelous: their love exists entirely outside of time, outside the women’s actual bodies, and only in their minds. To add injury to insult, one of the women has been in a coma for forty years, ever since she crashed her car after, you guessed it, coming out to her restrictive and homophobic parents.

In order for these two women to live freely and be in love, they have to leave their bodies behind and enter a virtual reality. The Belinda Carlyle song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” plays over and over in San Junipero. But the problem is, for these women, heaven isn’t a place on earth.  It’s just to the side of earth, a parallel universe on another plane of time and space. The women of “San Junipero” are wildy in love, and that’s a treat to watch. But they’re not actually alive; they’re not engaged in the grand experiment of embodied, earthly love. Don’t get me wrong—it was an absolute pleasure to watch their love affair on my television screen. It left me wanting more. I’m just hoping that the queer TV and movie narratives that “San Junipero” is bound to inspire will tell queer love stories that unfold right here, on earth.

Erin O. White


Erin O. White
 is a writing instructor and author whose work has appeared in the New York TimesPortland Magazine, and several anthologies. A native of Colorado, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and daughters. Her website is http://www.erinwhite.net.

Given Up for You is published in the UWP series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies.

Where’s Andrew? and where’s the Black Penguin?

Our guest blogger today is Andrew Evans. His book, The Black Penguinwas just released in paperback. It was awarded honorable mentions by both the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Library Association’s GLBTQ Roundtable in their book award competitions. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies. Follow his travel adventures on Twitter at @wheresandrew

Writing such an intensely personal book as The Black Penguin has resulted in a bit of a neurotic roller coaster for me, given that every review feels like a myopic critique of my life. But, I’ve also seen in the responses to the book that I am not alone and that others have struggled and triumphed, too.

As a writer, I am one part thick, scaly dinosaur skin and two parts oversensitive mush. The paradox results from constant rejection versus daily attempts to corral my subconscious onto the page. This weird duality works, I hope, to produce above-average stories while keeping my confidence in check. But I, and I think most authors, continue to question our work long after publication.

After a book leaves your brain, your fingertips, and your control, you watch its progress. Like a tomato plant, it either takes over the backyard or becomes infested with beetles, withers, and dies. Either way, the book stops being yours and has a life of its own. There may be reviews and Amazon stars, awards, and the distant echo of social media. An author’s ego can be fed sumptuously, as when I saw my name displayed in the window of a famous bookshop, or crushed, as when I saw all the empty chairs for my reading.

For me, the real blessings of a book tour are the face-to-face meetings with readers.

It’s surprising how many feel that I wrote the book specifically for them. So far, very few readers I’ve met on tour are gay Mormons like me. I have met Muslim women who struggle between faith, family, and love, and elderly gay clergy, interracial couples with racist in-laws, or just people who feel that they don’t belong. Meeting them all has reminded me that what may seem to be a very individual and personal story can reflect a universal emotional experience.

As a travel writer, I discovered that the book tour highlighted the amazing diversity of my own country. Every night I caught a new glimpse of American urban life, from the debonair professionals of New York City, to the queer theorists who flocked at the Harvard Bookstore, to Powell’s in Portland, where a man with two pit bulls and no legs thrust a handful of homegrown cannabis into my hands.

I was also reminded how impossible it is to categorize my book, which reflects the struggles I faced in writing it. I have found my book shelved under Travel, Memoir, Autobiography, LGBTQ, and even Religion. Indeed, it is this intersection of genres that interests me.

I have been especially touched by the diverse book clubs that have selected The Black Penguin for their monthly reading. From Maryland to California, I’ve received letters from book club members (all mostly women) who have read and discussed my book. One club has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years! Perhaps my greatest compliment came from a book club of high school English teachers, who let me know that they felt my book was well written. Sigh. Thank you; I had to rewrite it so many times! Accolades from the front lines of American literature are reassuring, especially after reading an online review that summed up my gut-spilling memoir in two words: “mildly interesting.”

I have moved on to writing my next book, but I am thrilled to see The Black Penguin in paperback and reaching readers across the world. I never expected this book to be “huge,” but I feel it is a huge success when someone texts me a picture of a tattered copy of my book, which they found in a rented beach house, or in a school library, or in a distant youth hostel. Seeing the book travel across the globe is the greatest compliment of all, and I send my sincerest gratitude to all my readers, wherever they are.

Andrew Evans has completed more than forty assignments for National Geographic, reporting from all seven continents. He is the author of the Bradt travel guides Iceland and Ukraine and lives in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

Poet Alan Feldman: On Volunteer Teaching

Our guest blogger is Alan Feldman, whose newest poetry collection, The Golden Coin, is published today.

My mother died at 61, my father at 93. Since I didn’t know whose genes I got, I retired early. After thirty-seven years of teaching creative writing, I thought maybe I would give out eye drops in third-world countries. I expected to write poems about this, of course.

What happened, instead, was that I began teaching a free weekly drop-in workshop at the Framingham public library where I live in Massachusetts and, in the summer, at the Wellfleet library on Cape Cod. I started teaching with fellow poet Tony Hoagland, who wanted to give something back to the Cape community where he lived. But then I couldn’t seem to stop.

Volunteering weekly generally increases happiness at a rate that economists have calculated at between 176 to 256 dollars an hour. Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound. No grades. No curriculum. I teach whatever I’ve been working on. I tell students whatever they need to hear, without worrying, as I used to, about their morale. And, most important, every week I think up an in-class writing exercise. I write it first to be sure it can work, and then we all try it out in class.

Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound.

I’ve always had good luck in writing poems on the spot. Perhaps I get this way of working from a long study I did of Frank O’Hara. He wrote his poems quickly and (unlike me) rarely revised. We can document that he wrote “Sleeping on the Wing” in twenty minutes. I tell my students not to be afraid to make fools of themselves (though, of course, I never force anyone to read aloud).

As Allen Ginsberg put it, “the parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest and most eccentric and, at the same time, most representative, most universal.” But, on the other hand, the presence of other people in the room works on people’s minds as well. As Pablo Neruda tells us, “a poet’s gifts spring from brotherhood, and the poet offers his art in recognition of that debt.”

My in-class assignments are generally suggestions (with examples from all cultures and periods) about how to construct a poem: Write a poem in which you mention very small objects and very large ones; write a poem where you describe a process in great detail; write a poem that’s one long sentence; write a poem that lists all the things you loved about a really painful experience, and so on.

Since I started offering my workshop I’ve completed two books: The Golden Coin (2018) and Immortality, which received the 2016 Massachusetts Book Award. In both books about a third of the poems come from assignments I gave to my workshop, and some of these were written in class, including “In November,” which appeared in Best American Poetry 2011, and “Love Poem” which was selected by Ted Kooser for his nationally syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” As well, I received a certificate (in Gothic calligraphy!) from my state legislature. My students have been rewarded too. Rosalind Pace, for example, won a coveted Massachusetts Artist Fellowships at age 77. And Judith Askew’s book, On the Loose, won the first poetry competition of the Cultural Council of Cape Cod.

I feel richly rewarded. But, as Stanley Kunitz wrote in old age, “I am not done with my changes.” I might still give out eye drops.

Alan Feldman is a poet whose many books and chapbooks include A Sail to Great Island and Immortality, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New YorkerPoetry, and Best American Poetry. He is professor emeritus of English at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

 

 

A belief in jest: anarchic arts in postmodern Russia

Our guest blogger today is Alexandar Mihailovic, whose book The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia is published this week. The art collective known as the Mitki emerged in Leningrad during the late Soviet period.

My road to writing The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia was a circuitous one. I first discovered the Mitki by buying a pirated recording of their music at the Kiev train station in Moscow. Who were these satirical dabblers in paint, print, and sound? Like Yeats’s jester, the Mitki tossed up the gaudy “cap and bells” of their collective disinhibition to a public struggling to understand its sudden citizenship in a new country. Very quickly, other questions jostled for attention. How can artists categorize themselves as “non-conformist” while belonging to a movement?  And why do they occasionally regard alcoholism as a productive catalyst for artistic creation, while also acknowledging it as a social ill?

One of the artistic productions by the Mitki that first caught my eye was Olga Florensky’s remarkable 1994 claymation film A Story About the Miracle of Miracles (Rasskaz o chude iz chudes), a quasi-steampunk narrative of pre-Emancipation Russian military history that is also a reworking of Nikolai Leskov’s 1881 story “Lefty” [Levsha]. In Florensky’s film, a mechanical leg takes on a life of its own, separating from its owner, the military officer Major Propoitsyn. (Watch the short film on YouTube.)

Florensky wrote her first version of this story in July 1986, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s dry law and at the height of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. She points to the ways in which the machines of war may contain sub-routines for renouncing their bellicose owners. The fact that the name of the Major, Propoitsyn, contains the word ‘drunkard’ (propoitsa) also suggests that imperial ambitions are expressions of unhealthy political passion.  As Florensky put it in the program essay for her 1999 exhibit Taxidermy, “the more I think about the role of effigies in the life of man, the more I find myself leaning toward the following idea: can it be that he doesn’t have to kill, in satisfying his despotic creative urges? Or, as one friend put it—a Russian born in Germany, with an uncertain grasp of the language of his ancestors—that he does not have to enmortify [primertvliat’] animals? Let the ARTIFICIAL ANIMAL be utterly artificial—may it go with God, in all its violations of anatomy and truth!”

Several nineteenth-century Russian writers—most notably Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin—famously regarded literature as a criticism of everyday life. In the work of the Mitki, we encounter the group practice of documenting dialectical shifts, of showing us just how states of servitude and conformity can give way to sunburst recognitions of freedom, how jingoism engenders pacifism, and how inebriation may be countered by a sobriety that is no less heady than the intoxication that preceded it. No wonder that Florensky’s original name for “Major Drunkard” (Propoitsyn) was Nepeitsyn (non-drinker).

The Mitki’s body of work speaks in a dizzying range of tones and moves along descending scales of affect—from punchy instruction to the sotto voce of a political unconscious begging to be heard.

Alexandar Mihailovic is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Russian at Hofstra University and visiting professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. His books include Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse; an edited volume, Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries; and a coedited book, Navid Kermani: Contemporary German Writers.

 

Writing Against Impunity: State Violence in Thailand

Our guest blogger today is Tyrell Haberkorn, the author of In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand, the latest addition to New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies. In Plain Sight was published this month.

When I recently held In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand in my hands for the first time, I felt a sense of bittersweet urgency. Seeing one’s work in finished book form is always exciting. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part is that the publication of my book on the history of impunity for state violence in Thailand coincided with the stability of the harshest military dictatorship since the late 1970s. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which fomented a coup in May 2014, is approaching its fourth anniversary with no clear exit from power in sight. Impunity, or the persistent and repeated failure to secure accountability for state violence, reigns supreme. Urgency arises from the ongoing need to act against impunity and, in the case of scholars, write against it.

I researched and wrote In Plain Sight as a scholar-activist who divides her time between the present and the recent past, and among reading in archives and libraries, observing human rights court cases, and translating accounts of state violence. Beginning with the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy in June 1932 and ending with the coup by the NCPO in 2014, I asked: What does the history of a nation look like when told from the perspective of citizens whose rights are violated, rather than the perspective of victorious and powerful leaders?

What I discovered is that Thai citizens have experienced a range of forms of extrajudicial violence at the hands of state officials, including torture, disappearance, assassination, and massacre, across regimes both dictatorial and democratic. In nearly all cases, state officials have escaped sanction and accountability. This impunity has been produced and sustained through the unwillingness of state officials to find their colleagues responsible, the intimidation of victims of violence and other citizens, and weakness in legal systems and other institutions. Impunity takes place in public, is pedagogical, and is meant to be witnessed, from the instance of state violence to the evasion of accountability, and finally to the creation of evidence about it.

The title of the book comes from the most surprising lesson I learned while writing the book: state violence and impunity take place in full public view. My expectation was that finding evidence would be difficult. Instead, I mined archival and other publicly available state documents, newspaper articles, memoirs of civil servants and victims of state violence, and court observation to reveal a history of impunity. Many of the violent events I write about in the book have previously been unexamined or overlooked, but the primary reason is not a sheer lack of information. The events, as well as the evidence of violence, are in plain sight.

The urgency of writing against impunity is underscored every time another person’s human rights are violated. I finished the research for In Plain Sight a few weeks before the May 2014 coup. For several years it had seemed that there might be an end to impunity, rather than a resurgent dictatorship. Political prosecutions, particularly for peaceful expression of dissent, are pervasive. Activists are taken from their homes by soldiers and held for periods of incommunicado detention, designed to intimidate rather than secure any kind of justice. Torture, particularly of those accused in national security cases, is common. As in earlier periods, the law is primarily a tool of repression under the NCPO, not one for challenging it.

The individual lives of those affected by dictatorship form the ongoing urgency of writing against impunity. Scholars cannot stop state violence, but we can document and write about it and ensure that it is not forgotten. This means that after basking for a moment in the glow of holding my book, I put it down, picked up my pen, and went back to work.

Tyrell Haberkorn is an associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.