Monday, December 8, 2014

Greetings 12.8.14

Well friends, things are coming to a close. Break out the sweatpants, no need to shave anymore. But a few announcements first:
  • CUNYFIRST is the worst.
  • It’s just bad.
  • Srsly.
  • It’s cold outside.
  • CUNYFIRST probably did that.
  • CUNYFIRST is still the worst.
Frustrated students will still be coming in and asking questions, so let’s all remember these facts, and remind ourselves who the real enemy is.

Finals will run from Dec 17 – Dec 23, so here’s a handy little chart for when your exams will be. Incidentally, does anyone know how to actually read that handy little chart? No? Excellent.

Oh and please start mentioning The Junction in all your classes and to everyone on the subway. They really like it when you get right in their face and ask them for stuff. And be sure to mention that we’re looking for visual art as well as poetry and short fiction.


News Briefs 12.8.15

The Civil Unrest Roundup

We're going through a lot as a country right now. As such, we're experiencing a fair amount of civil unrest that will, in all likelihood, continue. I think it might be important to note that we are not the only ones.

In Hong Kong, students are protesting the Chinese National People's Congress' decision on current electoral reform stating that, instead of democratic election, there will be a standing committee electing the next chief executive. These protests are huge, shutting down infrastructure and having some protestors undergo hunger strikes against the decision. This has been going on since September. 

Syria is still experiencing a civil war, which started in 2011 after pro-democracy protests were shot down and then resurged with hundreds of thousands of people continuing protest. There has been an estimated death toll of 191,000—though that figure is from August and has, in all likelihood, climbed much higher. The fighting has resulted in war crimes, the use of chemical weapons, and a massive number of refugees fleeing the country.

Venezuela has been protesting for better human rights since January, blocking infrastructure and protesting various murders, rapes, disappearances, and general violence and instability throughout the country gone unhelped by their government. 

The Central African Republic has been going nearly steady civil unrest since the sixties, but recently tensions have risen so high between various rebel groups after going through three presidents in as many years that a UN force of peacekeepers has been sent to the country to try and quell the violence, which may or may not be religiously based. 

Mexico has been experiencing a series of protests against governmental incompetence and antagonism following the disappearance of 46 students from the town of Iguala in September. 26 police officers have been arrested for involvement.

Ukraine is still in civil war following the overthrow of the former president last January. There are two main forces, the European-leaning Kiev government and the pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow. Thousands have died. 

And more. Isreal and Palestine. Sudan and South Sudan. So many more. 

Stay safe at the protests, everybody. 


Peter Pan Live

In spite of the political uprisings across the country over the last couple of weeks, there are still some happy moments we were able to salvage in this country. NBC aired its second-ever "live TV musical" on Friday, December 4th - Peter Pan. I'm going to jot down a few of my thoughts, since they're more important than anyone else's...

I admittedly have yet to watch it; I had my mom DVR it for me because a friend of mine (Jason Gotay) played Tootles in it (#humblebrag) and I love to watch everything he's in (side note: you should look him up on YouTube and watch some of his concert performances; he's fantastic). At any rate, there was a lot of dissension over last year's production of The Sound of Music on NBC, starring Carrie Underwood, whom audience members lambasted for defiling Julie Andrews's work. 

I think it's perfect that I haven't watched it yet, because I can objectively say that, regardless of its flaws, I appreciate the fact that anyone who has access to a TV in America also has free access to live musical theater in their living rooms. It's great publicity and it's a way of making musical theater universal and accessible to so many people who can't afford Broadway/Off-Broadway tickets. I know I'm not saying anything original, here, but what I will say--that I don't think anyone's said yet, at least not on Facebook or Twitter--is that offering a scathing criticism of a work does not make you intelligent. Someone recently told me about a study she read that said that people love to criticize because they feel that, by pointing out flaws, they're demonstrating a keen eye and an in-depth knowledge of whatever it is they're criticizing; so, in a way, criticizing makes people feel intelligent. I haven't found this study yet, but it sounds plausible enough. I'm guilty of it--or at least I was until I realized that it requires just as much intellect to find the redeeming qualities in something that you may not like. And not only does it require intellect, but it also requires open-mindedness, patience, and empathy. Having watched The Sound of Music last year, I can concede that Carrie Underwood wasn't a good actress and the role wasn't quite right for her, vocally at least. But, having been in a show before, I can admire the incredible work she put into the role, the hours she spent rehearsing for it, and how she humbly received the horrible comments people wrote about her on social media. 

I don't mean to be self-righteous, but I do think that finding the good in something you didn't like requires a LOT of work, so there's no need to criticize something in order to boost your self esteem. So, to all the people who tore apart the production of Peter Pan, watch it again. I'm sure there are plenty of things that were strong and redeemable. And I'm sure that if you can find them, you'll enjoy yourself more as you're watching it. And you'll enjoy yourself more the next time you're watching something.

This weekend, the United States transferred the largest group of inmates from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay. Six detainees were transferred from Cuba and resettled ( for the first time ever) in South America. Although this big transfer has been public knowledge since last year, it has taken this long, because... Bureaucracy. Former Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel, took his sweet time approving these low level transfers which eventually led to his resignation. Despite the delays, there have been thirty transfers so far (since November) under Hagel's watch, which is more than his predecessor, Leon Panetta.

Last year, president Obama pledged to eventually have Guantanamo Bay closed. The Obama administration argued that housing inmates on domestic soil, would save tax payers a ton of money. Along with their intentions of bringing down the inmate population to double digits, there is also the concern about the released inmates safety. Many of these inmates cannot be released back into their home countries because the level of security is not high enough. Luckily, Uruguay stepped up to take in the recently released six inmates, in a humanitarian attempt.

Currently Reading: Voyager by Srikanth Reddy

Where does the responsibility of the artist (and the more general person, as if artists are something different) lie: the people or the self?

Srikanth Reddy's text is one with many layers, so before I uselessly ruminate on an unanswerable question, allow me to contextualize: Voyager is a book made from another book, In the Eye of the Storm, a memoir by Kurt Waldheim, former UN Secretary General and, previously, Nazi intelligence officer. Reddy took Waldheim's memoir and composed a three-part erasure poem out of it, with each part going back to the beginning of the memoir and starting again. As is necessary for a book composed by destroying another book, there's a fair amount of meta narrative throughout the entire piece—indeed, after part one (in which there are still hints but not so blatant), part two is a construction of the story of Reddy's erasing the memoir told in prose poems, and part three is a far more broken-looking form in which Reddy takes that narrative from part two and crafts a metaphysical, Dante-esque narrative out of it. Even from the first few pages we have lines like "To complain about love in front of the famous Chagall window does not make a difference," commenting on the "use" of poetry in a way Amiri Baraka might approve of, and "Disappearance should no fashion books," which I read as a tongue-in-cheek line of Reddy making fun of himself in a way. 

But the most interesting motif of the book, to me, is the question of individuality. Reddy writes, "The self is a suffering form," in the first part of the book and spends large chunks of the second and third parts trying to come to terms with that position. In part two (and later in part three, though not as a prose poem), he writes:
On the indian sub-continent, a prince was idolated from all knowledge that might upset him. In the palae he began to lament his captivity. Could this self, born in a stream of sad time, only be makeshift? I consider my position over and over. In ships, the sea is law. In famine, the field. Therefore he took the occasion to visit the country. My my, he said, I understand nothing. The map of Asia was in the making during this period. Serious political disturbances were causing people to flee warfare, drought and famine. Some thrust aside their tragedies to cope. The self in theory is a problem. The word does not even cover the remains.
This idea of the self as a problem comes up again and again throughout the book as Reddy struggles with it, later crossing out the names of people in relation to their works ("as the playwright Hebbel once wrote," and "Thus in his fable / Schopenhauer / the philosopher describes") and commenting:
This book,
                    taken thoroughly apart
                                        and put together again
with relation to me,
                    soon came unstuck—
                                        whereupon it proved impossible
to obtain any understanding of
                    John 2:1
This struggle of Reddy's is not unlike Tolstoy's, who abandoned most of his early works as "selfish," because he felt that the artist had an obligation to his readers. By contrast, most artists seem more or less self-obsessed, putting themselves on the page/canvas/waveform/clay/stage/jar of piss over and over again. And I wonder if that is unavoidable, if that is necessarily bad, if it's something that should be fought against, if it's purposeless, if it's irresponsible, etc. Art is an intensely personal journey for a person to undertake, so contrastly I wonder if perhaps it's irresponsible or problematic to disincline the artist from their work. I don't know the answers to this debate, and in truth I think it's a sort of nebulas rabbit-hole that's just fun to add to from time to time, but Reddy seems to find his answer in the second-to-last poem in the book:

Drawn in outer space
                    on a ceiling of night,
                                        a hinged balance held true.
The balance
                    —its mechanisms
                                        worked into the unknown—
                    in the star systems
                                        which turn in union
without history
                    as we know it
                                        on this planet.
I recognize it
                    to the East
                                        said I to the West,
not made,
                    not given,
                                        over the world.
Devoted observers,
                    it seems to me
                                        a just structure.
John 1:5
                    And my search
                                        for peace underground
now come to an end
                    —constraints accepted
                                        in spirit as well as in letter,
the line spent,
                    the theatres in abandon—
                                        I viewed the balances
more clearly than ever before.

If you want a brilliantly smart read and don't mind really intensive post-modern discourse being strewn about inside it, I highly recommend Voyager. It takes about an hour to read all-in-all, and I'm not a particularly fast reader so it might take you even less. Just try not to focus on the existential dread of the artist's responsibility.

Kyle Williams

Currently Watching 12.8.14

Currently Watching:
The Lego Movie

Undoubtedly, the best part of hanging out with kids is that you get to slip back into kid mode. “Woah this action figure is awesome! And it shoots missiles! I’m bored, lets draw our own comic book!”

So I was super excited when my nephew asked over the Thanksgiving break if I wanted to watch the Lego Movie. HECK YEAH. But I was a little nervous (perhaps why I hadn't seen it until then); how good could it really be? And how much will it ruin my childhood if it's bad? Well thankfully, I won't have to answer those questions because it's pretty awesome.

A nice little article from the LA Times highlights what’s so cool about this movie: it’s actually crazy. Even the creators can't believe they got it made. I postulate that there are literally multiple jokes occurring in just about every FRAME of the movie. There’s just so much to talk about! But Legos have always been about constructing something new out of a mountain of disparate pieces. Let’s just list through some of the casting awesomeness:

Chris Pratt continues in his quest to dominate Hollywood, one genre at a time. Morgan Freeman is surprisingly hilarious. Gob as batman. Charlie Day as Benny, the 1980-Something Space Guy. Alison Brie as essentially the spirit animal to her character on Community. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum continuing their bromance as Green Lantern and Superman. Shaq as Shaq. C-3PO as C-3PO. Lando as Lando. Liam Neeson as Bad Cop, a character shamelessly making fun of his own character from Taken. Chris Offerman as a mechanical pirate named Metalbeard (new band name, I called it). And Will Ferrell as a villain with Ronald Regan’s hair. No, that's actually something Bill O'Reilly complained about.

And a completely (kind of?) fourth wall breaking climax? References to Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Justice League, Lord of the Rings? It won a freaking Grammy? (Perhaps a liiiittle ironic that the song embodying everything that’s wrong with current pop music wins an award? Naaaaaah.)

What's cool is that the animation follows constraints. The characters can’t really move except in ways the lego pieces could move. Fire, floods, explosions, laser beams are all produced with individual bricks. But instead of limiting the spectacle, it just makes it that much more awe-inspiring. Even the lighting is worth mentioning; it’s so perfectly done! Don’t get me wrong, it is a kids movie. But it’s a kids movie that sneaks into your brain.

And it does have some issues. It’s colors and energy are great but sometimes it can turn a bit too frenetic (perhaps why they purposely started the movie in the boring city area). And the movie’s use of the dress-like-a-pair-of-stormtroopers trope made me a little uneasy, given its weird, inadvertent similarity to black face. And the ending drags on a bit; they write themselves into a bit of a trap where, not only does the ending need to slow down to deliver the oozy E-Z Cheesey moral of the story, but it has to do it in two scenes running concurrently. It’s sound structurally, but it essentially doubles the length of that last scene, which hurts it. Apparently the sequel will also have more female characters, which will be nice.

But there's another, bigger issue with this movie: it's a 90 minute infomercial. Don't get me wrong, I stand by my above statements and it's a great movie, but its function as advertisement can't really be ignored. The message is supposedly removed from the product – think for yourself, allow your creativity to run wild, break away from rigidity and the soma of corporate consumerism, you can be creative and individualistic, etc.. But what toy is literally perfectly suited for this? The movie moves from obviously Lego, then departs into moralistic adventures, and then the conclusion applies perfectly to both the moralistic message AND the actual physical toy. Conservative pundits don’t really know what to do with the movie – its villain is actually named Lord Business, but after all, isn’t the film just a self-conscious advertisement?

Appealing to adults as well as children is just a good business plan; it allows for twice the audience and our own nostalgia rubs off on the next generation and works as another advertisement. If uncle Ivan is excited about Legos, so is little nephew. It's telling that most of the cameos appeal not only to younger audiences, but older ones as well.

But is all this really any different from any other blockbuster movie? I mean, who else saw the climactic battle scene in Iron Man 3 as a badass 30 minute commercial for the inevitable line of all 42 of Tony Stark’s suits as action figures? Similarly, every time a new vehicle was introduced in the Lego Movie, all I could think of was “man, that’s gonna be a pretty sweet set.” And voila!

I think it’s a fallacy to say that just because it’s a movie produced by a company that nothing worthwhile can be gotten from it. After all, all movies are made with someone’s money, and those peoples’ goals are rarely to make less money. And while it does leave a weird taste in my mouth, perhaps being aware of the advertisement buried in plain sight is better than it being hidden away.

Currently Listening


Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the 'and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfil de book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

[Guitar break]

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.


      After a beautiful week of being infiltrated by the news of our nurturing, thoughtful justice system, I hit a yoga class after feeling such elation from knowing that every civilian, particularly those of color, is in the best interest of those who patrol our streets—our nation's police force. 
     In this yoga class, this song came on and although I have heard it many times before, I found myself attuned to the words Bob was saying as I downward dogged on my mat. Something came over me, not an epiphany per say, but a reckoning in what this song was about. What can someone have, or hang on to, if the entire world seems to be slipping from your fingers; your freedom, a mythological scope that only people can talk about, and not be active in it; judicial systems so convoluted and only interested in furthering their own agendas; women still fighting for equality in public spaces and work places...the list goes on. Redemption songs. That was what Bob was saying, that's all he'll ever have. It may seem that Bob somehow gave up the fight, and found contentment in his lyricism. But I saw it in another way. It was recognizing the ability to gain perception over one's humanity. Also, when he mentioned "mental slavery" I saw that as not accepting any theology that keeps people from connecting with other people.
      Even though those in power will continue to blanket many social issues, there is one thing they can't prevent us from doing, and I'll repeat this again, the ability to connect with other people, whoever they are and wherever they're from. I connected with Bob at that moment in that class, with a silent bond that most of us carries when we are around someone who is like mined. Am I an idealist? Maybe, but I still believe we are all flawed, and I felt that Bob knew that and he was letting the world know that he's no martyr, just someone perceptive of his own humanity, our humanity. 

~Ninoska Granados

Poem of the Week

September 1st, 1939
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
This is an excerpt from the poem "September 1st, 1939" by W.H. Auden, written about World War II. This same excerpt was used to open Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart, excerpts of which I've been teaching my students. The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and the government's conscious decision to ignore it for the first 4 years, as it was "only a gay disease." Kramer uses this poem as an epigraph to his play, encouraging his audience members to embrace one another's differences and right to love whomever they want. He also uses it to encourage people to take a stand and speak out against the government, even if it's about a problem that doesn't affect them. Because the final line of this poem asserts that "we must love one another or die," Kramer aggressively implicates passive audience members with the government, suggesting that if they do not join the cause to raise awareness for AIDS, then they are contributing to the ignorance, neglect, and spread of the disease.
My students and I spoke about to what extent that last argument is true. Are people who are silent really contributing to the problem? It's a difficult question to answer, in part because we've all ignored a problem before and we may be guilty to admit our selfishness. 
But is it really selfishness? I've often argued that in life, you need to pick and choose your battles. And if you can eliminate anger and stress by avoiding the things that don't affect you, then you're one step closer to living a happy life. After all, we all face adversity at some point, regardless of the privileges into which we were born, and there will come a time when we need to fight our own battles and deal with our own struggles. Furthermore, if we decided to fight in every battle--even the ones that don't have anything to do with us--what lives would we be living? A life of constant war?
Then again, what would a world governed by self-interest be like? What if only the LGBT community rallied for their own rights, with no help from anyone else? What if only the black community rallied for acknowledgment and correction of systemic racism? What kind of world would that be?
Think about it. And happy holidays.

Culture Corner: The Return of the Letters Page!

In recent years, much ink has been spilled extolling the genius of comic book legend Stan Lee. After all, many of his creations (Spider-Man, Iron-Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc.) have been the driving force behind the most successful film franchises of the past decade. Often, when people write about Lee, they point out his major contribution to the art of comic book storytelling, namely, adding some pathos and angst to the super-hero lexicon, creating a more nuanced hero. Spider-Man was a teenager who just wanted to be normal, The Thing was a man who lamented his fate as a rocky monster, Bruce Banner was a man imprisoned by his volatile anger. However, perhaps Lee's secret contribution to the comic book industry was his warm, jocular Bullpen Bulletin that made readers from all backgrounds and ages feel welcomed in the colorful, explosive world of Marvel Comics. As comics have always tended to be the medium that attracted the shy, quirky outsiders who didn't quite fit in at school or on the play-yard, this Lee's avuncular voice was crucial in creating a readership that was loyal and passionate.

The Bullpen Bulletin was discontinued in Marvel Comics in 2001 and letters pages have slowly disappeared with it, leaving a hole in the comic book community that once prided itself on the intimate dialogue it had with the fans.

This hole in the comic book community is one that creator, Brian K. Vaughan, has set out to fill with his fantasy/ space opera series Saga. Not only is the series one of the most inventive, fun, funny, and heartfelt comic book series on the market, but Vaughan has gone to great pains to create the kind of fan community that recalls the early days of Marvel comics.

But, let's back up. Very briefly, let's go over the central plot of the series; two people from two different warring planets fall in love, get married and have a child. Their union represents a threat to the violent status quo, so the family is constantly on the run from well, everybody; governments, bounty hunters, and, of course, large-testicled Giants. Yeah, it's a comic that isn't terribly concerned with propriety. Amid all of the sword fights, laser blasts, and magic spells, though, lies a story about a young family and their struggle to keep it all together when love isn't enough. Aided by artist Fiona Staples clean and expressive line work, the comic is an absolute must read for anyone who enjoys the bizarre topped off with some heartfelt characterization.

However, the secret to Saga's success may be Vaughan's terrific letter column that often adds up to two to five extra pages of entertainment each issue. Now, Vaughan is a much sought after writer, not just in the comic book field, but in film and television as well (He has written for Lost and, er, Under the Dome, but don't let that deter you!), however he is probably most well known for his excellent comic book series, Y: The Last Man. The point is he is a busy man and the care Vaughan takes in putting together his letters page is nothing short of astounding.

Starting with the second issue, Vaughan instituted the annual Saga reader survey, a rather comprehensive and cheeky set of questions that not only allows him to get a sense of who the fans of the comic books are, but to begin a conversation with the fans and in doing so, create an intimate reading experience that is both communal and private, a kind of oxymoronic dichotomy that had once been the corner stone of comic book fandom. The content of the surveys often mix run of the mill demographic questions such as "If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?" and "Where are you from?" with irreverent quires like, "Which of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is most assuredly an atheist?" and "Are you Banksy, and if so, can we do anything to help?"

Two issues later, Vaughan discussed the results of the survey thus blurring the line between reader and creator and developing a community of readers who can feel that their voices are being heard and, more important, are requested.

One of the other fun things that Vaughan has done with his letters page is he has embraced the comic book community's penchant for cos-play (fans regularly develop elaborate costumes to dress up as their favorite comic book, sci-fi, or fantasy characters, a practice that has grown exponentially with the boom of comic book conventions in recent years) and introduced an annual costume contest that takes place around Halloween, naturally. Seeing the creativity and work that has gone into these lovely recreations of the book's idiosyncratic characters is simply amazing.

Within these letters pages, engagements have been announced, births have been trumpeted, and losses have been commiserated. Saga is, ultimately a comic book about family, and it makes sense that Vaughan has taken great care in creating a loose knit unit within his letter pages. Or, as Vaughan put it in the very first sentence of the letters page in the very first issue, "New comic series don't have fans, they have families, small groups of diverse people who band together to help keep alive some weird thing that matters only to them."


Sally Mann

Since this week's blog is supposed to be children-themed, I thought it would be appropriate to speak about one of my favorite photographers, Sally Mann. Sally Mann is an American photographer who was born 1951 in Virginia. She is best known for her large black and white photos of her three young children. Many of her photos were taken at her family's remote summer cabin along the river, where her children played and swam in the nude.  Her work is both provocative and innocent. While the pictures of her children received a lot of criticism, Mann thought of her photos as “natural through the eyes of a mother,” since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, angry and naked. There’s something extremely real and honest about her photos. The emotions of her children that she captures are hauntingly beautiful. She truly captures childhood and all that goes along with it. The photos are innocent, yet mischievous and exploratory. When I look at the photos, I feel as though I am entering into their lives and standing there with them.