Commentaries - March 2009

Last night we made available the full video recording of Hank Lazer’s reading at the Writers House. (A few days ago I posted here a fifty-second video clip.) While Hank was here, Charles Bernstein recording one of his Close Listening — featuring more reading from Hank’s work and also a half-hour conversation between them, which is already available. This is and will be on our Lazer PennSound page. Check it now and come back later too.

Charles Bernstein provides this summary of his talk with Lazer: “Hank Lazer talks to me about the confluences of his identities; about Southern poetry; about the poetics of jazz and transition; about the forms of his work; about the purported conflict between creativity and critical thinking; and about his poem ‘Figure.’”

Hank Lazer is an associate provost at the University of Alabama and in that capacity heads up the university’s museums and art entities. He directs a project called the Creative Campus Initiative, which is “dedicated to building a collaborative environment where students can connect with each other, faculty, and their community in turning innovative ideas into action.” There’s a good deal of b.s. in that general description/mission statement, but I sense something very real here. I’m guessing that Hank and others saw a campus where the artsy students were isolated and probably suffering from institutional disrespect. So CCI becomes a holding place or project site for them — in part by merely moving into one virtual place all the related activities already happening, so it seems to be more than it is, rather than, as before, less than it is. After that administrative convergence, new things (added things) begin to happen. During his visit Hank and I had a chance to talk about this — but most of what I’ve said above is a guess made from looking at the situation from the outside.

I have long admired Pier Marton’s film consisting of interviews of children of Holocaust survivors. It’s called Say I’m a Jew.

Pier Marton is a second-generation artist who has wrestled with problems of his parents’ survival and the impact of contemporary anti-Semitism. This led him to merge the video interview of children of survivors, called Say I’m a Jew, with an installation entitled Jew, set in a cattle car. Being a member of the second generation and experiencing European anti-Semitism in France in the 1950s and 1960s led Marton to the inability to openly express his Jewishness. Drawing from his own experience, Marton was obsessed with the question of how children of the second generation have coped with growing up in Europe after World War II. While attending a convention of second-generation survivors, Marton advertised for individuals willing to tell the story of their European and Jewish identity experiences on camera. Many volunteered. Marton edited bits and pieces of the video together to form an engaging artistic and psychological work. The American-European painter R. J. Kitaj has represented what he terms “diasporism” as a major component in contemporary artistic life. This is a useful concept to explain the works of many artists in this show, who constantly have to deal with a Jewish identity problem in a world that is potentially enticing and supportive and also contains anti-Semitism, denial, and insult. Marton’s space was made to represent a blend of cattle car, barracks, and a mausoleum. As Marton has written, “Memory can fuse separate locations in an inextricable blend.”[19] Within the installation area were seats where the video played continuously. Those attending the show were encouraged to write their responses on the walls of the entrance and boxcar itself, recalling the memory of how deportees did the same on their way to death camps.” — from Stephen Feinstein, Witness and Legacy

Hank Lazer reads from his poetry an hour ago at the Kelly Writers House.

From left: Marcella Durand, Hank Lazer, Eli Goldblatt, Al Filreis — this afternoon. (Well, they came to record an episode of PoemTalk.)

I’ve just read an op-ed piece published by an undergraduate named Irwin Kahn in the Daily Pennsylvanian (the student newspaper at Penn) dated October 6, 1952. We were losing the war in Korea, Kahn argued, because “we” (he seems to mean only anticommunists and pro-capitalists) were losing the rhetorical battle at home. Schools (he presumably meant Penn, too) should be active in teaching the benefits of capitalism and the horrors of alternative economic theories. Any fair and free curriculum would teach “that the path of capitalism and free enterprise is the road for them [the ‘masses’].” Don’t think too much: “Probably the individual’s right to strive, the highlight of the American way, is lost amid our own introspection.” Here’s a link to the whole text.