writers institute logo

Fall 2010
Volume 15, Number 1

Jean Valentine Introduction, New York State Writers Institute, November 16, 2010
By Tomas Urayoan Noel

In a review of Carl Sandburg's collected poems published in Poetry magazine, William Carlos Williams lamented that Sandburg "fell into the facts themselves." Acknowledging the brutal eloquence of such early poems as  “Chicago,” Williams argues that Sandburg lost sight of the poetic syntax that finds invention in raw data, so that his work increasingly became a catalog of facts-- of people and places-- less an affirmation (sample Sandburg book title: The People, Yes) than mere exposition.

What I find most remarkable about Jean Valentine's poetry is its ability to engage both facticity and poetic truth, attuned to the beautiful mess of the real. A blurb on the back cover of Door in the Mountain, her revelatory volume of collected poems, alludes to a religious impulse in her work, but I prefer to think of hers as a spiritual poetics in a very practical sense: it is the right kind of poetic materialism, perhaps the only one available: one that grants the facts their imprimatur while never losing sight of other forces.

Valentine's poetics is not without its polis-- but not in a “the people, yes” sort of way. Rather, it would appear that the no's have it, as her poems often feed off of misunderstandings, departures, silences, failed connections. And still, this is a Nerudian poet in that no relation is ever a failure: there is never no relation, never no communication, eros is everywhere, even as erosion is inevitable.

Her poetry takes many forms, scoring various engagements, addressing self in other and other in self. These are, then, revelations, breakings of the glass, to paraphrase her new book's title.
A few sample lines from Door in the Mountain, followed by the poem they are taken from, in chronological order from the 60s to the present:

“The light was all behind us”
(Dream Barker),
"Far off, low,
A little stir begins, a word, a missed

Beat, a listening: this-
World, this-world.”

"Someday, we will be able to take it in, that violence, hold it in our hands... And the ones who come after us, maybe they can understand us; forgive us; as we do forgive our parents, our grandparents, moving so distantly through their lives... Their silences..."

 (Actuarial File)
"I cannot give you much or ask you much
Though I shore myself up until we meet
The words we say are public as the street
Your body is walled up against my touch.

(To a Friend)

Jean Valentine is our New York state poet but also, simply, a New Yorker. That sense of poetry as the body made public is at the heart of New York City poets, from Whitman to Frank O'Hara and beyond. It is also at the heart of American poetic self-figuration (Whitman again). And yet Valentine is a major poet who makes our empire state's anxieties seem decidedly minor. There is no major and no minor, for each one of us finds, not without some difficulty, his or her own entry points, as in the titular door in the mountain. The only empire here is in our skin, our botched longings, our desire for meaning. Jean Valentine scores these longings with the elliptical clarity of our most vivid and luminous dreams. When she writes

"Yes I am standing in the doorway
Yes my softness and my hardness are filled with a secret light

But I want world-light
And this-world company"

we all nod, made aware of our complicity, our own desires.

Tomas Urayoan Noel is a poet and Assistant Professor in UAlbany’s English Department.

The Paradoxes of Honor: Kwame Anthony Appiah
By Tara Needham

“Honor killing will only perish when it is seen as dishonorable” (172), writes leading moral philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in regards to the ongoing practice of the killing of women—by male relatives—judged to have shamed the family in order to preserve family honor in present day Pakistan. As Appiah shows in his most recent book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, honor killing is not condoned by Islam and is also illegal in the state of Pakistan.  Yet, despite these legal and moral/religious objections, the practice persists among certain groups and is permitted through lax enforcement of the law and tolerance by regional, national and international communities.  How, then, can this brutal and unjust practice be brought to an end?  Only, argues Appiah, by the transformation of the very parameters and definition of honor itself.

Appiah is a thinker and writer who has eschewed the turn—within the field of philosophy— to scientific and abstract moral questions to take on the challenge of considering human nature and ethical behavior in a global context.  Appiah’s interest in and ability to think ethically across nationality, race, gender and ethnicity is reflected in The Honor Code, and also draws upon his own transnational upbringing and education. Now a citizen of the United States, Appiah was born in London, the child of a British mother and a Ghanaian father. He became the first person of African descent to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University, and has taught at the University of Ghana, Harvard and now Princeton. He has written several volumes of philosophy, novels, and the acclaimed and controversial book In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, in which he rejects the idea of a biological foundation for race.

In The Honor Code, Appiah demonstrates that there are historical precedents from diverse global regions for the pivotal role honor plays in extinguishing deeply ingrained, highly debated and ultimately unjust practices.  He devotes a chapter each to the following: the disappearance of the duel in England in the first half of the nineteenth century; the abolition of the British slave trade and colonial slavery by 1838; and the end of foot-binding in China in the early twentieth century.  In each case, there were plenty of social, legal, and moral arguments against the practices well before they were substantially challenged and/or prohibited altogether. It is honor, he argues, that fuels and determines how, when and why individuals and groups finally act on the convictions that a certain practice is morally wrong.  More specifically, it is at the fault lines and borders between personal and provincial codes of honor, and the demands of larger communal mores and expectations, where moral revolutions are launched.

Honor can exact so much moral and political pressure because it is intrinsically linked with an individual’s sense of identity, an identity largely based on inclusion in groups.  Here, honor is derived from peer recognition, whereby one expects to be respected by equals simply by virtue of being part of the same group.  Appiah argues provocatively that a collective sense of honor on behalf of the English working class expedited the abolition of slavery.  Appiah writes: “They were against it, I think, for the simplest of reasons: nothing more firmly expressed the idea that labor was dishonourable than Negro plantation slavery in the New World.  And labor was what defined them.”(124)   Fighting for the end of slavery meant fighting for the respect due the working class qua class.

Because we belong to groups, we can also feel that other members of the group threaten our sense of honor by their practices.  We can feel shame and/or honor as part of a nation because this “honor world” acts collectively, not individually. For example, if we personally feel shame because of the actions taken by the U.S. soldiers abroad at Abu Ghraib, it is because we feel they have both betrayed the internal honor code, and brought judgment upon us from outside as Americans.  “Collective shaming”—as Appiah calls this effect—played a large part in the movement to outlaw foot-binding, which was sparked by the presence of Christian missionaries in China who opposed the practice. The focus of the anti-foot binding Chinese literati was on the good of China first—i.e., repairing their international reputation in a global community who viewed the practice as barbaric.  The health and well-being of women was a secondary concern.  Still, a practice that was once the mark of the upper classes and considered the greatest expression of honor came, within the span of a generation, to be viewed as dishonorable and undesirable in order to improve the world’s opinion of China.  In a similar vein, when Frederick Douglass campaigned in England to end slavery in the U.S. he sought to amplify and mobilize internationally the shame of holding slaves.

It is this process of “collective shaming” that Appiah believes can be effective in applying pressure to end honor killing in Pakistan, and is already being undertaken by a coalition of feminist groups inside and outside the country.  Appiah writes, “…when a nation is doing something profoundly wrong, showing it up in the community of nations is exactly what the patriot who cares for justice and the nation’s honor should be doing.” (160). Honor can thereby be a potent tool for progressive reform and the protection of human rights.

Appiah will visit the Writers Institute on Thursday, November 11th for an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. in the Standish Room, Science Library on the UAlbany uptown campus, and an evening reading and discussion at 7:30 p.m. in UAlbany’s Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center. Both events are free and open to the public.

Tara Needham is a doctoral student in UAlbany’s English Department and holds a graduate assistantship with the New York State Writers Institute.

Sapphire, By Harvey Havel

The author and poet Sapphire is no stranger to adversity.  Born in Fort Ord, California in 1950, her parents had separated when she was young, and then her mother “kind of abandoned” her children after the separation.   Sapphire then dropped out of high school in San Francisco where she resided at the time, and yet she always followed her higher calling, which was poetry.  Somehow she picked herself up, earned a GED, and began her higher education at the City College of San Francisco, only to drop out from there and become a self-described “hippie” during the peak years of the San Francisco arts scene.  She eventually moved East and graduated from the City College of New York in New York City.  She then went on to receive an MFA at Brooklyn College.  What makes Sapphire’s journey remarkable is that throughout her years of uncertainty she never abandoned what she represented: an African-American woman placed society’s harsh and stereotyping judgment of African-American women.  Yet it was a stereotype that she never shied away from, and this led her to write some of her most powerful poetry written from the very core of what it means to be a lesbian, black female in America. 

Her first book of poems, a slim, self-published chapbook titled Meditations on the Rainbow, was quietly released in 1987.  Because of Sapphire’s newfound fame, such a collector’s item currently sells as a used book on Amazon.com for well over $100.  Her next book was the 1996 book of poems and short-stories American Dreams.  Critics hailed American Dreams as one of the most powerful literary debuts of the 1990s.  In this collection, Sapphire unflinchingly looks at the lives of those who inhabit the urban ghettoes, and not a stone is left unturned as far as the people she writes about. Everyone from the white victim of a ‘wilding’ by an African-American gang of teens to an African-American youth killed by a Korean-American grocer is captured in this fusion of poetry and prose interspersed with short narrative bursts.  Sapphire offers a real and heart-wrenching voice for those affected by sexual abuse, prostitution, rape, and family disintegration.  Her book doesn’t shy away from all of the graphic details and still approaches these victims’ lives with a dose of human sensitivity and a sense of healing. 

She followed-up Meditations with Black Wings and Blind Angels in 1999, a book of poems that departs from the severity of her earlier work and is much more nostalgic in tone and disposition.

Fame and success followed Sapphire immediately after her landmark first novel Push was published to national critical acclaim in 1996.  Push tells the story of Claireece Precious Jones, a young black girl on the margins of an urban dystopia.  She’s obese, HIV-positive, physically abused by her mother, and pregnant for the second time with her own father’s child.   "I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She's locked out by her physical appearance. She's locked out by her class, and she's locked out by her color," says Sapphire in an interview with NPR. "I encountered this. I had a student who told me that she had had children by her father."  Precious endures incredible hardship living at home with her mother, but the day finally comes when she enrolls in a special pilot program for young urban girls-at- risk at a local school.  There, she is nurtured by a teacher who encourages her to write about her experiences in a journal, thereby transcending her past and finding redemption through the expression of language and the communication of her experiences.   Push is a journal of a life revealed in hard-hitting and sometimes humorous prose.  It shows how spirit can still bloom while under the weight of a desperate and unforgiving past.

Push was made into a movie under the title Precious, starring Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, and Lenny Kravitz.  The actress Mo’Nique won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in this film in 2010, and the picture has also won The Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.  Newsweek has called Sapphire’s Push a “horrific, hope-filled story [that is] brilliant, blunt, merciless.”

The New York State Writers Institute is honored to host Sapphire for the first time on Tuesday, October 26th for a seminar at 4:15 p.m. in the Standish Room, Science Library on the University at Albany’s Uptown Campus and then for a reading at 8 p.m. in Page Hall, on the University’s Downtown Campus.

Harvey Havel is the author of the novels The Imam, Freedom of Association, and the short story collection, From Poets to Protagonists.  He also teaches writing at SUNY Albany.

Gerald Vizenor, Breaking Down Literary Conventions
By Harvey Havel

One quality that most readers will not find in the works of Gerald Vizenor is conformity to the demands of the contemporary book market.  In fact, Vizenor’s novels and short-stories ‘break out’ of established language, strict narrative forms, and formidable literary patterns that most critics and the mass-market readership of Native American writings find typical.  Vizenor’s ‘breaking out’ from under the weight of literary convention comes from his vast knowledge of contemporary critical theory, personal wit and insight, and the breadth of his own imagination.  As Vizenor says himself,

“Philosophically, I think we should break out of all the routes,
all the boxes, break down the sides.  A comic spirit demands
that we break from formula, break out of the program.  [My characters]
break out of all restrictions.  They even break out of their blood….
They break out of invented cultures and repression.  I think it’s
a spiritual quest in a way.”

His first novel, Darkness in St. Louis Braveheart (1978), counts as one of the very few science fiction novels ever published by a Native American.  Drawing on the pioneering works of fellow author M. Scott Momaday, the novel portrays a group of tribal pilgrims who travel through a dystopian landscape of an America that has experienced an environmental collapse due to greedy oil speculators.  Vizenor draws on postmodernism, poststructuralist theory, and the stories of tribal tricksters to create an imaginative story that mixes traditional Native American allusions with contemporary political social satire.  He employs the strategies of irony and sadness to comment on what he calls the “survivance” of the Native American peoples who are moving towards a greater post-Indian identity.

With over thirty published books to his name that break the mold, Vizenor has furthered his prolific career by publishing Shrouds of White Earth, released by SUNY Press this past August.  It’s an absorbing and innovative look at a Native American painter and artist named Dogroy Beaulieu and his long journey of creativity and actualization as he travels from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota to the city of lights, Paris, where he is resoundingly appreciated.  Beaulieu’s specialty involves creating shrouds of animals that have been sacrificed and crucified by Native Americans on the reservation.  These shrouds are the dead bodies of birds and other animals that have great totemic and symbolic meaning to the Native American population there.  Beaulieu wraps these animals in soft white linen, preserving and capturing their images and bringing them back to virtual life.

Beaulieu’s artistic sentiments, however, make him a prime target of “tradition fascists” on the reservation.  “Casino politicians” ban him from the reservation because he is in violation of the reservation’s constitution for his artistic sentiments and shamanic tributes.  The novel functions as a commentary on how Native American tribes continue to use their status as cultural victims to denounce any progress made in the wider world.  Vizenor achieves this by using both irony and mockery to chart Beaulieu’s journey.

While many readers have questioned Vizenor’s motivations, it’s important to note that there is plenty of substance behind the sometimes contentious narratives that he writes.  In other words, he hasn’t simply ‘talked the talk,’ but he has also ‘walked the walk.’  Vizenor was raised on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota by his Anishinaabe grandmother, his Swedish American mother, and afterwards a string of uncles in Minneapolis.  He lied about his age to become a member of the United States National Guard at fifteen.  The Army honorably discharged him before his unit went to serve in Korea, but he rejoined the Army two years later and served in postwar Japan.  Vizenor returned from Japan in 1953 and used funding from the G.I. Bill to finish a degree at New York University.  He then went on to Harvard and the University of Minnesota for post-graduate work in English Literature.

Between 1964 and 1968, as the emergence of the American Indian Movement took shape, Vizenor served as director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center in Minneapolis.  He worked with many dislocated Native Americans who found tremendous difficulties living on reservations that had high rates of crime and alcoholism.  This hands-on work led him to become suspicious of AIM and its concern with generating publicity rather than direct engagement with its own people.  Vizenor soon became a leading activist who questioned the way government officials dealt with colonized tribes.  As a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, he uncovered instances of drug-dealing and corruption on the part of AIM’s primary leadership, making him the target of numerous death threats.

His life, however, soon turned to teaching, and within the academy, his career flourished.  Vizenor created and oversaw the Native American Studies Program at Bemidji State University and was later appointed professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.  His long and distinguished career in higher education led him to teach at the University of California at Berkeley for more than twenty years.  He is currently a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Vizenor’s books include Interior Landscapes (1990, 2009), Father Meme (2008), Almost Ashore: Selected Poems (2006), Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (1998), and  Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Warriors of Survivance (1994).
The New York State Writers Institute is proud to cohost Gerald Vizenor on Thursday, November 9. 2010, with SUNY press in conjunction with the Second Annual John G. Neihardt Lecture.

Harvey Havel is the author of the novels The Imam, Freedom of Association, and the short story collection, From Poets to Protagonists.  He also teaches writing at SUNY Albany.