The Walls Of Our Cage: Reading John Edgar Wideman

He stared at me, waiting for an answer. At home we didn't get in other people's faces like that. You talked towards a space and the other person had a choice of entering or not entering ...

I was today years old a few months ago when I first heard of the great American author John Edgar Wideman. A friend from Pittsburgh invited me to participate in the #WidemanChallenge, in which a few literary critics, bloggers and journalists spend the end of 2020 calling attention to a writer that too few people know about - an important voice from the Rust Belt whose works are keenly relevant in the year of George Floyd.

I agreed to join this challenge and dove into a recent book by John Edgar Wideman, a volume of short stories called American Histories, which fascinated me with spinning fantasies of conversations with the pre-Civil-War abolitionist John Brown, brushes with Sonny Rollins and Jean-Michel Basquiat and fractured scenes of family life, campus life, city life, trouble life, conflicts and confrontations. But I could tell I was reading a late career book, because the sophisticated complexity of the intellectual journeys in this book made me feel like I had walked into the last act of a Philip Glass opera. I couldn't quite piece together who this author was from American HIstories, so I turned to a key early book by this author, Brothers and Keepers, originally published in 1984. With this book I began to understand the mission John Edgar Wideman is on, and the reason his growing readership is so enthusiastic about him.

Diane Di Prima's Revolutionary Letters

Revolutionary Letters by Diane di Prima

I'm reading Diane di Prima's "Revolutionary Letters" this morning. The great Beat poet died this weekend. I haven't heard many details yet - the news hit social media late last night - but since this is the morning of October 26 2020 here in USA where our Supreme Court is being stolen by right-wing extremists and our society appears to be collapsing under the weight of our so-called government's greed and corruption, there's no doubt the poet herself would still be in a revolutionary frame of mind this morning. Here are a few quotes from her stirring and important book Revolutionary Letters.

This is a poetry book that evolved for decades, like Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass". The book was born during the heavy years 1968 to 1971, when USA searched its soul to discover the truth its government could not accept: the Vietnam War was disastrously immoral and had to be stopped. These were the years after Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, and as a pacifist today I can only bristle at the intimations of continuing violence in this book. Diane di Prima was trying to figure out what to do about all the guns in her country, back then, and we are still trying to figure it out today. She believed in healthy tribes, in peaceful anarchic coexistence, in the power of human understanding and joyful, loving communal effort to solve serious problems. These poems are written from the inside of an exploding planetary crisis, and they speak of harsh reckonings, intolerable realities and impossible choices. On a practical plane, these poems are simply helpful notes for activists. I think they speak to us today.

Scorched Earth

There's a smell of scorched earth in the air lately, here in America.

It's smoke from Pacific coast wildfires, and it's something more: the warning scent of an authoritarian future we must avoid, even as our society chokes on climate change, racism, social injustice, predatory capitalism and military escalation. Scorched earth is what I see when I close my eyes and think about the direction the USA is going in right now.

In five weeks I'm going to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (even though I wish I could be voting for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) and hope that the criminal enterprise known as the Republican party is removed from power. This would pull us back from the brink of civil war, which is where four years of Trumpism have left us.

But it will take a fair election to remove these lying crooks from power, and there is little confidence right now that our blatantly corrupt government with its white-supremacist Senate and stolen Supreme Court will conduct a fair election. Even if we manage to kick the crooks out, there is still a sickness in our society, and this is not a sickness that any election can cure.

I do not hate or blame Americans who support Trump, just as I wouldn't blame any victim of a sophisticated con. A sophisticated con is what William Barr, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Steve Mnuchin, Mike Pompeo and Steve Miller are carrying out right now from within their positions inside the federal government. This is a reactionary putsch by a privileged minority. I hope more and more Americans will wake up, understand the urgency of the current moment and unite to remove these fascists from power. We can then work together for a new revolution, a green new deal, an end to military profiteering, a constitution that doesn't suppress the voting power of minorities and urban citizens.

The Vision

Many of us spend our lives pursuing a certain vision. An idea, a dream, a blueprint. There is something we are supposed to work on, in this life. No matter what we do, and no matter what else we think we are doing, this is what we work on, every minute, every day.

I don't know how it became my dharma to work on two different monthly podcasts at the same time, and to pour my heart into each episode of each as if I were packaging the secrets of the universe for the world to enjoy. All I know is, I'm glad to have some creative outlets, and I hope you will listen to the two podcast episodes I recently put out.

I'm so glad I talked to hiphop artist and antiwar activist Miles Megaciph on the World BEYOND War podcast. I've been wanting to interview him since hearing him perform at a #NoToNATO protest in Washington DC over a year ago. His new release "No Fear Now" connects the coronavirus pandemic to Black Lives Matter, and that's where attention needs to be right now. Thanks to Megaciph for covering so much territory with me in this wide-ranging talk about peace, music and life.

Michael McClure, Animal Poet

The poet Michael McClure, who died on May 4, 2020 in his home in Oakland, California, was one of five readers at the seminal Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco in 1955 that kicked off the Beat Generation. I always loved his simple and organic poetic style, at once both cosmic and down-to-earth, and I also loved his attention to nature and animals. In an era when visionary causes abounded, he invented his own: an insistence on recognizing all animals as spiritual beings who can teach us more than we can teach them. He once described himself as a "mammal patriot". He helped to make ecological awareness a pillar of Beat Generation consciousness as early as the Six Gallery reading in 1955, because the poem he chose to read was the powerful "Point Lobos: Animism".

Leap Day

Bugs Bunny as Figaro and Elmer Fudd as Bartolo in Rabbit of Seville

Yesterday was Leap Day, February 29, 2020. I spent the day in a mad frenzy, because about 24 hours earlier I suddenly realized time was running out for me to write, record, edit, assemble, publish and metatag the February episode of "Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera", the podcast I launched a year ago. I try really hard to do one episode per month. I got the February episode out in February, because Leap Day saved my ass.

Creating podcasts is still a learning experience for me, and this is the fastest episode I ever created. Please listen to it! This is the one where I share my unabashed love for a very popular opera, Gioachino Rossini's "Il Barbieri di Siviglia". It's also the episode where I finally get to talk a lot about Bugs Bunny, which must have been a buried desire for me all along, since I evidently have a lot to say about Bugs Bunny and opera. I also blather on about lots of stuff like "Seinfeld", Harley Quinn, Groucho Marx and Freddie Mercury. Because, you know, it's a podcast about opera.

A Journey Of Voice

I took a walk through Prospect Park today. These hilly acres in the middle of Brooklyn were designed to get you lost, with swerving paths that make you think you're walking in a definite direction as they subtly turn you back again until you pass the spot where you started and realize you've turned completely around. If you ever tried to walk Prospect Park without a map you know what I'm talking about. If you ever tried to walk Prospect Park with a map you probably know what I'm talking about too, because that map really isn't going to help. It's kinda like life, and there are plenty of ways to get lost outside of Brooklyn too, whether you carry a map or not.

At one point I found a good tree stump to sit on and spent a few moments in a reverie of end-of-year contemplation, or end-of-decade contemplation. We've lived through some tumultuous and exciting times. I began by thinking about the music, movies and books of the last ten years. I decided the 2010's were a good decade for music, and I resolved that the musical crown of the decade should go to five very original women singers who kept it real: Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. This decade sounded just fine.

Movies, though? I don't know. The best stuff was on TV. Breaking Bad, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Broad City, Black*ish. I can't really think of any movies I liked as much as several TV shows.

Books? I don't know. I felt more sense of a coherent collective global literary mission ten years ago, when litblogs were hot. I can name lots of amazing novels from the first ten years of the new millennium, but not as many from the second decade which ends in nine days. I bet the fault is my own; I didn't try as hard to love novels during the last few years as I did when I was blogging about books three or four times a week. I've been immersing myself in the 19th century — novels, histories, operas — and I have to admit that I haven't read much new stuff lately as I should. I'll try to do better in the next ten years.