Commentaries - June 2011

(reading Adrian Piper's Decide Who You Are in Constructing Masculinity, where Pi
(reading Adrian Piper's "Decide Who You Are," in Constructing Masculinity, where Piper's work appears as the endpapers)

Below is an email query I sent last Friday, the results of which will be posted soon as Part 2. I'm grateful to the folks who responded, many with sentence contributions, including: Yosefa Raz, Laura Woltag, Joshua Clover, Melissa Mack, Lindsey Boldt, anonymous, Laura Moriarty, Lauren Levin, Brandon Brown, Alli Warren, Monica Peck, Jackqueline Frost, Jess Heaney, Cynthia Sailers, Andrea Quaid, Scott Inguito, Samantha Giles, Zack Tuck and Anne Lesley Selcer.

A procedural update: the composition / remix of sentence contributions proceeded pretty much as anticipated in the email below. I dropped sentences into excel as they were received, making decisions along the way regarding which longer groups of sentences to leave together, and which seemed most dynamic as individual units. Then I sorted the sentences or sentence clumps in descending alpha order.  I almost went with this ordering device because I am a sucker for list poems and it was beautiful to see so many desires listed in a row. All those sentences beginning with “I want.” Instead, in homage to Dan Thomas-Glass, and in some attempt to move away from the organizing I who would default to the alphabet because it rendered a result pleasing to herself, I chose (as per the original plan) to use a chance operation inspired by With + Stand's editorial practice, for instance as follows in Issue 5: “The order of poets in this issue was determined based on the following chance operation: each poet was randomly assigned to a U.S. state; poets were then reordered based on state levels of radiation fallout from nuclear testing.”

In this case, each sentence or sentence cluster was randomly assigned a zip code in Oakland, and then reordered based on the percentage of foreclosures in that zip code during the second quarter of 2009.

Here’s the email. Part 2 soon!


I'm writing with a quick idea / question / response project, in hopes you might have a few moments this weekend to participate. The idea is fairly simple and shouldn't take a huge amount of time. It will require only 1-5 sentences, sentences which you are willing to give up some control over. The setup however is a little long, and it goes like this:

I'm writing to poetry friends and folks with whom I've either participated in a recent reading group with, or who I know to be interested non-affiliated reading/study groups. Basically any group that convenes around a text, idea or practice, and is shaped to some degree by bay area poetry communities and poets. And which is free (or close to free, or dealing with money in some way that asks some questions about the relationship between study/education and money.)

I'm writing b.c. I keep thinking (and trying to formulate some ideas) about what's going on with what feels, to me, like a profusion of reading/discussion groups right now in bay area poetry communities. Particularly groups that address their work to content other than poetry as such, or to poetry within another framework. I was going to write something around these questions for Jacket2 (where I've been blogging, sort of, for the last month or so:  But I realized that I'm not sure yet what I might say. I'm not even sure of my questions. 

So I thought I would ask you. 

My proposal is thus: 

Send along 1-5 sentences (total) by next Monday evening. Your sentences should, in one way or another, address themselves to the following questions. These questions probably exceed the capacity of any 1-5 sentences. Your sentences can be more questions. Or quotation. Or you could address 5 sentences to a single question with some specificity. You could do anything, really, in 1-5 sentences. 

The questions:

How is it different?

What is the relationship between the reading you do on your own, and the reading you do with groups?

What are you learning?

What do you want? 

How do you feel about it?

How do you feel about AAAARG?

How many people?

Why do you think there are so many reading/study groups right now? 

Have there always been?

Does it have to do with place?

Process, or content? 

What is the source of the tension?

What makes it difficult to be there?

What does it mean for a reading/study group to be private? 

What does it mean for a reading/study group to be public?

Which texts?

What do they have in common?

What sort of snacks? 

Alcohol, coffee, tea?


What is the relation between your writing and your participation in reading/study group(s)?

What is the relation between your political work and your participation in reading/study group(s)?

Who are the public intellectuals?

What is ambition?

What is the anxiety about?

Does a conversation develop?

Do you feel mastery of (over) the materials? 


Do you act on it?

Do you feel insecure?

Do you hang out afterwards?

Do you carpool?

What else?

After I receive sentences, hopefully from at least 10 folks, my plan is to re-order these in some way. I'm not sure what the unit will be - if each person's set of sentences will stay together, or if everything will be reordered at the level of individual sentences, or some combination thereof. A lot will depend on the sentences and what they are doing. If a group of sentences are all working on one idea I will probably keep them together, that is, ideas will trump other considerations. In terms of the ordering / reordering logic, I'm going to ask Dan Thomas-Glass for advice b.c. he always orders contributors in with + stand in a provocative way. Or maybe I will use a method already employed in With + Stand. Or something else.  

This means I would need you to be ok with me doing something with your 1-5 sentences. 

The resulting piece will be attributed to everyone who sends sentences. I might insert my questions or use them as a title or leave them out or something else. I don't know yet.

But your specific sentences finally won't be tied to your exact name. They will be part of a larger piece, which your name will be attached to, along with others, and the piece will be a blog post. 

I have to travel all day tuesday and so my idea is to re-order these on the way, and post by mid-week. 

I of course very much hope you'll send something but understand the millions of reasons why you might not be able or want to - so a big thanks for considering it. Sorry this email is so long. Thanks particularly for all the reading and thinking together in various formations. 


'They shall know well the heavenly fellowship … '

Harold Levy (left) and Wallace Stevens

Harold Levy was an interim chancellor of New York City's public school system at the end of Giuliani and the beginning of Bloomberg. Levy got his BA from Cornell at a time when people like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and poet A. R. Ammons held forth — and Harold Bloom, too, for that matter (I think). Levy hung out in an intellectually vibrant circle that produced (not surprisingly, when you think of A. Bloom's potential influence) Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives. (Wolfowitz had grown up partly in Ithaca; his father was a professor of statistical theory at Cornell.) Somewhere along the line — from Ammons and maybe Harold Bloom — Harold Levy picked up an absolute love of Wallace Stevens. And, many years later, when he was appointed chancellor he told all the members of the New York City School Board that they would be convened to discuss three poems by Stevens (Levy now recalls that two of these were “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Sunday Morning”) and would be given a violin lesson by Isaac Stern. Levy's role (he was a businessperson) was to bring efficiency to the system, but he also brought what might be deemd the opposite — a conviction that Board members should be conversant in the philosophical questions of the sort that one would hope kids in the schools would face if and when presented with probing teaching. On May 2, 2000, the New York Times covered this story and here's the whole article:

May 2, 2000
Schools Chief Plays Higgins To Unlikely Eliza, the Board

A few weeks ago, the seven members of the New York City Board of Education found something odd in their mailboxes: three Wallace Stevens poems, courtesy of Harold O. Levy, the interim schools chancellor. ''Poetry,'' he wrote in an attached memo, ''can give voice to the inner souls of people who lead seemingly mundane lives. 

Then came the news that Mr. Levy was planning a series of lectures, intended specifically for the enlightenment of the board members. The first, scheduled for tomorrow night, will be on cosmology. That is, the study of the universe.

And next week, Mr. Levy will gather the school system's 43 superintendents for a group violin lesson at Carnegie Hall, taught by none other than Isaac Stern. What is going on here?

If the school system's top officials did not have enough to worry about, with Mr. Levy pushing them to be more efficient and accountable, now he wants them to think more, too. Music and poetry are among the more esoteric parts of his plan to raise the level of debate on education policy, he says. That means focusing less on administrative minutiae, and adding intellectual rigor to the often tedious board meetings.

''The notion is to change the areas of conversation,'' Mr. Levy said in an interview, ''so that we are squarely confronting some of the great philosophical questions of our day.''

To that end, Mr. Levy has enlisted his friend, Jonathan Levi -- a novelist, jazz violinist and founding editor of the literary journal Granta -- to be the resident intellectual at 110 Livingston Street.

Mr. Levy, whose official title is executive assistant to the chancellor, says that his duties include bringing board members, school officials and students ''into the secret society that is New York City's intellectual culture.''

Whether they will go willingly is another question. After all, the members of the Board of Education -- who are appointed by the mayor and the borough presidents -- are known more for their political allegiances than their intellectual pursuits. At least one has suggested that Mr. Levy stick to being a manager and let them choose their own enrichment activities. ''For the most part I'm ignoring it,'' said Ninfa Segarra, one of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's appointees to the board, referring to the clippings that Mr. Levy has been circulating from Scientific American, The New York Review of Books and other erudite journals. ''I guess he thinks we don't read on our own. But every single board member gets Education Week. Most of us are pretty well versed on the issues.''

Ms. Segarra said she had not decided whether to attend the lectures. And as for the poems, she said she had not received them. ''Probably if I had gotten it I would have thrown it out,'' she said. ''I'm not a poetry kind of person. I like serial killer novels.'' Other board members appeared appreciative, or at least tolerant, of what one wryly described as Mr. Levy's attempt to play Henry Higgins.

''There is a very fine line between sharing information and being viewed as arrogant,'' said William C. Thompson Jr., the board president. ''But I don't think Harold has fallen on the side of arrogant. I see this as Harold constantly thinking and sharing ideas he finds exciting.''

Jerry Cammarata, one of the three board members who fought Mr. Levy's appointment, said his attempt to spark intellectual discourse was appropriate because the board's primary responsibility should be to debate and create policies. ''I think 110 Livingston should be an intellectually enriching experience for anyone who walks through the doors,'' Mr. Cammarata said. ''We should be continually thirsting for information. If he thinks this stuff is relevant, it would be imprudent and disrespectful of us not to give it a shot.''

But whatever their reaction to Mr. Levy's recent efforts, the board members pointed out that they had been mulling ideas long before Mr. Levy's appointment in January.

''We're always swapping stuff around,'' said Terri Thomson, the Queens member. ''The more we can learn together, the better.''

So far, Ms. Thomson and five other board members have signed up to attend the cosmology lecture, at the Museum of Natural History. The speaker will be Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, who will provide insights on how to teach such a complex subject. In addition to board members and administrators, Mr. Levy has invited several dozen of the city's science teachers. For the second lecture, Alan Brinkley, a history professor at Columbia, will discuss the civil rights movement.

''This is a chance for them to exercise their minds,'' Mr. Levi (his name is pronounced with a long i), the son of a philosophy professor at Columbia, said this week. ''We want them to be doing mental push-ups.''

For the district superintendents, Mr. Levy has already brought in speakers like Jonathan Kozol, who has written extensively on urban education, and Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for poor and minority students. And, of course, they have the violin lesson to look forward to.

Mr. Levy said he and his boss would not be foisting lectures and clippings on the board -- and violin lessons on the superintendents -- if they did not believe that their audience was already highly intelligent. ''Henry Higgins was assuming that his audience was unsophisticated,'' Mr. Levi said. ''We're assuming our audience is sophisticated enough to listen to lectures at the highest level, but that in the course of their normal days as educators, they don't get the opportunity.''

But Ms. Segarra pointed out that Mr. Levy, a Citigroup executive, was hired for his corporate expertise, not his intellectual vigor. She said he had not used his managerial skills as much as she had hoped, and that he should be focusing on the coming summer school program, which is to be the largest in the city's history. ''He has a very limited amount of time to do some very critical things,'' Ms. Segarra said.

But while the plan to create a literary salon of sorts at 110 Livingston Street might not seem to fit in with Mr. Levy's efforts to make the Board of Education more businesslike, Mr. Levi said that in fact, the two efforts fit together seamlessly.'

'To run a business you need to find the best resources and apply them as efficiently as you can,'' he said. ''My job is to look at the issue of resources more broadly, in terms of the artistic and intellectual resources of New York City.'' Mr. Levy did not deride his predecessors, but said that, as career educators, most were focused on a handful of initiatives directly related to classroom instruction. Many of those initiatives were abandoned when the next chancellor came in, he said.

''I don't want to blow through here with an initiative or project that won't withstand the test of time,'' Mr. Levy said. ''What I want to do is have a public debate about the methodologies and what the true needs of the system are.''

But whether such a debate will lead to permanent change is as open a question as whether Mr. Levy will become the permanent chancellor after his temporary contract ends in July. Quite possibly, his friend Mr. Levi said, people are reacting enthusiastically to Mr. Levy's initiatives simply because they do not expect him to stick around. ''The chancellor's office is such a revolving door,'' he said, ''you never know whether people are genuinely interested or just nodding politely and waiting for you to depart.''

Johanna Drucker is a book artist, poet, and scholar whose work focuses on the history of the book and print culture, history of information, critical studies in visual knowledge representation, and collection development in book arts. Recent books: Speclab (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Design History: A Critical Guide, with Emily McVarish (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), and Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Drucker is Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Information Studies at UCLA. This is an 8-minute excerpt from a one-hour talk.  Here is an audio recording of the entire presentation, which took place on March 14, 2011, at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.

Painting & film noir, masks, women behind bars, collage, fairy tales, & disaster

Susan Bee interviewed by Tom Winchester at Sovereign Nation

Susan Bee‘s Recalculating at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn examines all of art history through a postmodern lens: as if its most epic battles were appropriated then compressed onto a canvas in a style that is similar to the way that David Salle, Nicole Eisenman, and Cindy Sherman have created their compositions. Without losing her style to a sea of reproductions, Bee maintains Recalculating as an exhibition of paintings that makes its two distinct themes battle each other in order to expose their tenuous theoretical commonalities. On the surface ironic fairy tales of domestic disputes and shattered windows build a film noir representative of today’s sobered ideals. Below the surface is a painterly, Bauhaus-inspired formal deconstruction that sometimes hides beneath objects that are fully rendered. The paintings’ formal tension reflects their dissonant narratives, creating a universality that art aspires to.

Susan Bee: The first series of paintings are stills from film noirs, mostly black-and-whites that I’ve made in color. They’re arranged in an abstract narrative with recurring characters like the man with the hat and the blonde woman, driving, windows, guns – there’s a lot of hints of violence in the film noirs. They usually end badly.

Tom Winchester: They remind me of your last show of paintings, which depicted disasters.

Bee: This show has more to do with personal disasters, with actual characters having them, but the situations could go either way; he either loves her, or he’s about to kill her. Some of them reference certain films, like one is from Gun Crazy, another is from Detour, and one is from a woman-behind-bars flick, but they actually go beyond the films. I’ve added things like masks, hats, and backgrounds, which aren’t in the originals. And some of them I tried to pull into abstractions.

The other paintings in the show have to do with either landscape or religious imagery, like the Renaissance and Medieval works in the Lehman Wing at the Met, which refer more to my earlier work.

read the rest of the interview at Sovereign Nation

PennSound’s partnership with our colleagues at the Beinecke Library has led to the wide availability of recordings made many years ago by Lee Anderson. Today we introduce our PennSound/Beinecke page within the PennSound web archive. Many thanks, once again, to Nancy Kuhl at Yale. (The new page was put together by Anna Zalokostas.)