Archives: July 2017

What I Learned Editing Hunter S. Thompson

Terry McDonell writing for LitHub
HunterS.Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson’s editor Terry McDonell writes about the author and the origins of “gonzo” for LitHub:

There are conflicting stories about the first use of the word gonzo to describe Hunter’s journalism but all credit fellow journalist Bill Cardoso. Maybe it was on the press bus during the 1968 New Hampshire primaries, maybe it was in a letter praising Hunter’s 1970 Kentucky Derby piece, maybe it was just one night in a bar, but it was definitely Cardoso who used gonzo first, and he and Hunter agreed on that. It came to mean more than the lack of objectivity in the amped-up first-person voice that Hunter’s work personified, but Cardoso would say only that he meant the word scatologically—as in crazy shit—and that he had used it many times before he applied it to Hunter’s journalism.

Cardoso rose at the Boston Globe to edit its Sunday magazine, quit to open a jazz club in the Canary Islands, then returned to journalism and famously become the most unfamous practitioner of the New Journalism among the New Journalists. I wish that sentence were as sharp as it is true in the way Cardoso wrote that the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena was “the meeting ground of Babbitt and Costello.”

Cardoso and the journalist and promoter Harold Conrad painted layers of polish on the word hipster—or, as Cardoso sometimes put it when describing himself, wordhipster. Conrad was less unfamous, since his friend Budd Schulberg had based the cynical fight press agent in The Harder They Fall on him, and Humphrey Bogart had played him in the movie. Conrad introduced Cardoso, Thompson, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to Muhammad Ali, and put them in ringside seats. His idea was that if you get important journalists to cover the fights, the rest takes care of itself—especially after a toke or two.

All of the writers mentioned above wrote careful, crafted pieces that came in clean. Unsurprisingly, not Hunter. Likewise those same writers helped to speed the editing process while Hunter turned it into theatre, saying that there were far fewer good editors than good writers, and that he had learned some nasty lessons from their incompetence. He had a riff about it, about how he would suck editors into his pieces as conspirators, all of us wanting to prove ourselves good enough—hip enough—to edit him.

(…)

An Extract: Moving Kings

From Joshua Cohen's new book out today
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An extract from Joshua Cohen’s new book Moving Kings, published today:

DAVID
(In Distraint)

Ye shall know them by their vehicles: those blue trucks that’re always cutting you off on your way to the airport, sides emblazoned with grimy white crowns, dinged bumpers stickered GOT A PROBLEM WITH MY DRIVING? CALL 1-800-212-KING!

Ye shall know them by their ads: on basic cable and drivetime radio, those billboards that’re always blocking the signs and making you miss the airport turn, with their offers of free estimates over the phone and 100% money back guarantees.

Or maybe, like more than 180,000 other satisfied customers served in all five of the boroughs and three neighboring states since 1948, you know them as the Courtly Couriers®, or the Royal Treatment Pros®, or the Removalists with the Regal Touch™—whom you’ve let into your home, to move your most precious possessions to your new home, or else to one of their six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area.

Or maybe, whatever you know is wrong, because you’ve just been reading their online reviews.

King’s Moving (David King, President, Spokesman, Container of Crises, Stresses, & the Distrained) was a licensed, bonded, limited-liability insured large small business that specialized in—one guess—moving … ’n’ storage … ’n’ parking … ’n’ towing … ’n’ salvage … ’n’ scrap, activities that demanded the bloodsweat of plus/minus 40 fulltime and 60 parttime employees, 50 vehicles, three lots, five garages, six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area—not to mention a headquarters in Jersey City, hard by the piers.

Above all, King’s Moving was a family business. Family owned, family operated. Family, family, family… Take that into account, Your Honor…

 

It was summer, toward the weekend of a holiday week—Moving Day (last day of the month, first day of the month), followed by Independence Day—and David King was out in the Hamptons at a birthday party for America, to which he’d been invited as a member of the Empire Club, which had required attendees to donate upwards of $4K for the privilege of drinking diluted booze and eating oversauced BBQ under the auspices of the New York State Republican Committee.

Inviting him to a party and then making him pay: that was class. That was how billionaires stayed billionaires.

And David, who’d resented even the toll to the Long Island Expressway, couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d met $4K worth of people yet—he couldn’t help valuating everything: the people, the property, the Victorianized manse shadowing the pool. His phone was vibrating again in his pocket.

He canceled the call—he was working.

He was working by attending a party at which he didn’t know anyone, or knew only that he recognized: names, faces, profiles.

It was work having to restrain himself from mentioning mergers he’d only read about, acquisitions that weren’t his, a celebrity stranger’s divorce/custody negotiations still ongoing—having to endure discussions of clean ocean and beach replenishment initiatives, when all he wanted to know was: daughter or wife? when all he wanted to know was: does anyone know where our hostis? It was work pretending he blended, he mixed, pretending he wasn’t sweating and had a second residence of his own and was a Hamptons vet and agreeing yes hasn’t the Meadow Lane heliport gotten so crowded lately? and yes isn’t Ray from Elite Landscapers just the best?

Because the fact remained that David had never been this far out on the Island before and not only couldn’t he tell you which of the Hamptons he was in, he couldn’t even tell you the number of Hamptons, or the differences between the Hamptons, or what made a Hampton a Hampton, singular, to begin with.

“Hope we’re not keeping you?” a lady said.

David said, “Come again?”

“You keep checking your phone.”

“I’ve got foreign business, never stops. It’s already July 5th somewhere.”

And he excused himself from that bezant of lawn and its assembly of skinny flagpole women flying dresses in red, white, and blue.

Ruth, his office manager, had been calling without leaving messages. Now she was gibberish txting: sorry sorry bill sick have take bill jr bball practice.

And then: anyway not finding passcard.

David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.

Kids—put David around kids and he’d fantasize about having them and only then would he recall that he had a daughter, who was an adult now—the kids were having their faces smeared native with warpaint. They bounced around on a giant inflatable galleon, parried and thrust with balloon swords.

A breeze blew in with the dung of elephant rides.

He moved among servers who made $8.75 an hourand so who made about 14 cents, 14.5833 cents, he did the figures in his head, for each minute it took them to carve him primerib or fix him a scotch or direct him and his menthols to a smoking area.

Conversations collected, as they were conducted, in circles. About stocks, about realestate, stocks. About renovations and how draining it was to open a house for the season. Apparently, to have two houses meant always neglecting one of them, at least. About alarm systems, sprinkler systems, sump pumps, white vs. black mold. About politics.

David’s politics were aspirational, inferior: he was in favor of contacts, contracts, the right to not diet, and the right to jump lines at dessert stations.

David King was a man who if a longtime employee flaked on a commitment on short notice because her exhusband was too ill to take their son to a baseball practice that wasn’t even hardball but actually softball, or if his primerib came closer to medium than to the already spineless concession that was medium rare, or if his Dewar’s 18 turned out to be Dewar’s 15 or 12 or God forbid came with an icecube or even just an extra splash of water, or if the line for the dessert station was moving so indecisively slowly that his icecream would melt before he got to the toppings he liked—it wasn’t his fault that he was so decisive about his toppings—he’d scream, he’d have a conniption, and yet once he’d fudged his sundae with a cherry atop he had all the attention, all the guilty sated childlike attention, for being lectured by an Ivy League B student on the new model Gulfstreams (though David didn’t have his own plane), the best sailing routes (though David didn’t have his own boat), the best steeplechase courses (David didn’t even have a pony), how New York State was the most regulated statein the union, the state with the highest taxes, the state with the highest energy costs, the highest fuel costs, the highest insurance premiums, and a convoluted body of tort law that made even the Nazi justice system seem unbiased and lenient, and how so and so was really the only candidate to bet on, so and so the only candidate who had real plans both for the Middle East and for midsized American businesses (our composited Ivy League B student apparently knew his audience)—the only candidate who was legitimately “Pro-Growth,” and that was the line, or the jargon, that struck him, and brought to mind the image of a small modest neat building, like some fourfloor prewar walkup in the Village, which with every vote for a Republican grew taller by the floor, until it became this big shiny tower that clockhanded all of Manhattan, and then, by association, his mind flashed below his belt, which was on its last notch, and below his gut, which hung like a panting tongue over it, to his bloodless dick, which—as if his heart had betrayed the party platform, “Pro-Growth”— dangled limp and useless.

(…)

Twenty Questions with Ursula K. Le Guin

Interviewed for the TLS
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Ursula K. Le Guin is interviewed in the TLS:

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

No, my mind refuses to work that way.  Can’t separate writer and written.  I love and admire Virginia Woolf, but that doesn’t mean I want to be her, as I’d have to be to have written To the Lighthouse.

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

My field?  What is my field, I wonder.  My favourite field is the one below the barn at the old ranch in California.  I hope in twenty-five years it looks just the way it does now, all wild oats and chicory and foxtail and voles and jackrabbits and quail.

Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?

I can happily claim José Saramago as my contemporary, and do so, and hope he will be read as long as novels are.

What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?

I don’t know which leads a long list.  Let’s say Grace Paley for the author and  H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn for the book.  Why are they underrated? Well, one was a Leftist woman and the other was an intransigent Westerner, to start with.

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

At the moment, Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.  If only she’d stopped with the first volume.

If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?

Here and now will do very nicely, thank you.

If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?

In The Dispossessed, I would mention the communal pickle barrels at street corners in the big towns, restocked by whoever in the community has made or kept more pickles than they need.  I knew about the free pickles all along, but never could fit them into the book.

Which is your least favourite fictional character?

Do you mean which one do I think is most unbelievable, or which one do I loathe most?  I guess God in the Book of Job would qualify for both.

(…)

Liu Xiaobo: The Man Who Stayed

Ian Johnson writing for the New York Review of Books
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Following Liu Xiaobo’s death, Ian Johnson examines for the New York Review of Books the Nobel Laureate’s future place in Chinese history:

For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. 

—Confucius, Analects

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that remaining in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might shock his fellow citizens awake.

It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most provocative essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the effects of absolutism. He had founded schools and newspapers, and advised other political figures on how to change the system. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he remain in the imperial capital: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, could make a difference; people might pay attention to China’s plight.

So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly condemned him to death in the inevitable show trial that followed. The trial itself was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.

Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, however, Tan was able to utter what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”

I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu. 

(…)

Maggie Shipstead on Being Alone (But Not Lonely) in Paris

Maggie Shipstead for LitHub
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Extract in LitHub from Maggie Shipstead’s text in the edited collection A Paris All Your Own:

I sat motionless at my desk, breathing shallowly, my fingers resting on my laptop’s keyboard. He knocked again, waited, knocked a little louder, waited. Under the apartment door, his feet cast shadows on the dark green linoleum. I didn’t make a sound. Finally, he went on his way, footsteps receding. After a minute, the hall lights, which were on a timer, clicked out, and there was only darkness under the door.

The phone had rung a few times the previous day, and I hadn’t answered. I knew who was calling. It was the same man who had just knocked: not a stalker or a creep, actually, but the Swiss composer who lived across the hall, an affable, fortyish guy with a mop of dark curls. I’d met him in the elevator earlier in the week. According to Google, he composed operas—not just any operas: underwater operas. (In related news, it turns out there are underwater operas. The world is a marvelous place!)

I had no friends in Paris and no reason to turn my nose up at someone who might or might not have been part humpback whale, but friendship, at the time, wasn’t something I was after. In fact, when faced with a friendly overture, I was capable only of evasive maneuvers. I was alone, you see, which for me isn’t a moment-to-moment condition, easily changed, but a way of being. Solitude is a well I fall (or jump) into from time to time and don’t try to climb out of. I sit down there and enjoy the quiet.

This was the end of January 2012. I had been in Paris for almost a month, with two more to go. The Swiss composer and I were both residents at the Cité Internationale des Arts, a complex of 270 live/work studio apartments for artists in the trendy 4th arrondissement neighborhood of the Marais. Most of the apartments, or ateliers, were underwritten by arts organizations or universities or entire nations that also chose the residents, though a small number were managed by the Cité directly. Mine belonged to Stanford University, where I’d spent the previous two years on a writing fellowship, but the plaques on the other doors along my hallway mostly identified chilly European countries not known for garrulous people: Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland. Being the standout hermit in such company was, I think, something of an achievement.

(…)

Nothing Will Go Back: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Pető of Central European University

Stephanie Newman interviews for LARB
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Stephanie Newman interviews feminist scholar Andrea Pető about the current state of Hungary, for LARB:

(…)

STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall?

ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary.

On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”

In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. Is this related? 

Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. The conservative values are only fig leaves. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power.

That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Abortion today is more or less freely available. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved.

Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia?

This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. The migration crisis changed their position.

(…)

Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia

Stephen Greenblatt writing for The New Yorker
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Stephen Greenblatt writing on what The Merchant of Venice taught him about ethnic hatred and the literary imagination, for The New Yorker

(…)

Last year was the five-hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Venetian ghetto. The Venetians had some uncertainty and disagreement about how to mark this anniversary, and one could see why. Starting in 1516, Jews, who had previously lived in the city wherever they chose, were required by law to reside and to worship in a small, poor area, the site of a former copper foundry. (The Venetian word for such a foundry was geto.) There they were permitted to run pawnshops that lent money at interest. They could emerge during the day to engage in a limited number of occupations—including buying and selling old clothes, laboring on Hebrew books in print workshops, teaching music and dance, and practicing medicine. But at night they were obliged to scuttle back to the ghetto, where they were shut in behind locked gates, guarded by men whose salaries the Jews themselves were required to pay. Jewish physicians were permitted to go out during the night to attend to their Christian patients; no one else could leave until morning.

This is hardly an arrangement to celebrate in the twenty-first century, but it was an early attempt in modern history at a form of modus vivendi that would permit Venetians to live in proximity to an intensely disliked but useful neighbor. The usefulness was not universally acknowledged. At the time, in Italy and elsewhere, itinerant preachers were stirring up mobs to demand the expulsion of the Jews, as had been done recently in Spain and Portugal and, centuries earlier, in England. A scant generation later, Martin Luther, in Germany, urged the Protestant faithful to raze the Jews’ synagogues, schools, and houses, to forbid their rabbis on pain of death to teach, and to burn all Jewish prayer books and Talmudic writings. At the time that the ghetto was created, there were people still living who could remember when three Venetian Jews, accused of the ritual killing of Christians for their blood, were convicted of this entirely fantastical crime and burned to death. In Venice, locking the Jews up at night may have given them a small measure of protection from the paranoid fears of those with whom they dealt during the day. The ghetto was a compromise formation, neither absorption nor expulsion. It was a topographical expression of extreme ambivalence.

Shakespeare could in principle have heard about it, when he sat down to write his comedy; the ghetto had been in existence for some eighty years and there had been many English travellers to Venice. Indeed, there is evidence that the playwright took pains to gather information. For example, he did not have his Jewish characters swear by Muhammad, as fifteenth-century English playwrights did. He clearly grasped not only that Jewish dietary laws prohibited the eating of pork but also that observant Jews often professed to find the very smell of pork disagreeable. He marvellously imagined the way that a Jewish moneylender might use the Bible to construct a witty Midrashic justification of his own profit margin. He had learned that the Rialto was the site for news and for trade, and that Shylock would conduct business there.

But Shakespeare seems not to have understood, or perhaps simply not to have been interested in, the fact that Venice had a ghetto. In whatever he read or heard about the city, he appears to have been struck far less by the separation of Jews and Christians than by the extent of their mutual intercourse. Though Shylock says that he will not pray with the Christians or eat their nonkosher food, he enumerates the many ways in which he routinely interacts with them. “I will buy with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following,” he declares. To audiences in England—a country that had expelled its entire Jewish population in the year 1290 and had allowed no Jews to return—those everyday interactions were the true novelty.

(…)

Three Poems

Andy Axel for BOMB Magazine
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New poems by Andy Axel for BOMB Magazine:

Canada Dry
 
How specific is neck to a woods?
Sleep-sick, the vehicle I operate’s full
of ears that fail to be pricked by the query
so I field it myself, “one for the road” in that
it keeps it under us because it keeps me awake
to the dark of what’s technically morning,
pierced by First Birdsong Award-winning
bird’s song. We’re trucking scrapple,
a regional meat for meat’s sake
and since back North you can’t get it,
quick since the further you take it
the less edible it gets.
 
No one’s a local at the tollbooth
because nobody’s from where we are,
but the robot’s there always,
taking a job and I’m asking
what can’t be trash
to a bin that says “Trash Only.”
Mirror I saw on the sidewalk,
I know this one,
“not trash, not free, $50 bucks”
it said in magic marker,
throwing up a plot of clouds slick
with the surface but empty of threat.
How much a 2-liter drained of ginger ale is worth
depends on which jurisdiction you redeem it in.
 
Listen—a border welcomes us to brittle glass,
meaningful chiefly in the units we use
to get away from it.
Wherever we’re going is home,
where I’m at my worst for loving distance.
Like a landmark, I steer by the loose-leaf
a Bambi Academy kid crayoned a big rose
and “no smoking” onto I found
stuck to an inner tube in winter
as it rolled free down Mermaid Ave,
navigating by values I can’t know.

(…)

Interview with Anne Carson

Željka Marošević interviews for The White Review
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Željka Marošević interviews Anne Carson for The White Review:

(…)

I interviewed Carson over a period of six months via email. As an interviewee, she was patient, prompt, and unusual. Her emails came in lower case, and I was always addressed by my initials. While Carson responded to some questions with paragraph-long answers, other questions would be answered in a word, or not at all. Sometimes an explanation would follow. ‘that thinking is over,’ read one email, ‘take it somewhere else. remember Catullus.’ The interview was a challenge to the expectation that a writer should explain themselves beyond the words they’ve already written. I began to see the absurdity of the interview form, where a writer is asked to endure our assumptions and validate our interpretations. I thought of the way Carson describes Joan of Arc’s interrogation in FLOAT: ‘They prodded and poked and hemmed her in. Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could.’

In the end, it was Carson who freed us. The interview was over, I had exhausted all my lines of inquiry, and then an email arrived. Its subject line was: ‘re self study’, followed in the body text by ‘(how it all begins to sound a bit false)’. Below, she had written the final lines of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Making Strange’:

 

… A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing

I found myself driving the stranger

through my own country, adept

at dialect, reciting my pride

in all that I knew, that began to make strange

at that same recitation.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

 —  FLOAT picks up many threads started in earlier books. Despite its variety there’s a wholeness to your work, as though any line in any poem might connect to any other elsewhere (which is why a box makes sense as a container). Do you feel like you’ve always had the same broad concerns?

 

A

ANNE CARSON

 — I’m not sure about broad concerns – how broad? Most of my concerns seem to me very narrow – the shade of difference between two synonymous adjectives in a sentence, whether or not to make an eyebrow with vertical or horizontal lines in a drawing, etc.

The rest is after-shock.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

 — So do you feel that you’re always working at a micro level?

 

A

ANNE CARSON

 — Or perhaps working slightly behind my own ‘broad concerns’. They form ahead of me in big waves that crash down when it’s too late to save myself.

 

(….) 

The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History

James West Davidson writing for Slate
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James West Davidson looks at the meaning and purpose of American Independence Day speeches by examining at Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, for Slate.

(…)

The speech that deserves our notice, and did truly thunder, came not at the centennial but a quarter of a century earlier, in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. Rochester was the epicenter of the so-called burned-over district, a region along the Erie Canal swept repeatedly by religious revivals and reform. There, the former slave and ardent abolitionist Frederick Douglass published his newspaper the North Star. Douglass was a good friend of Susan B. Anthony, whose family farm was located on Rochester’s outskirts. His paper had been one of the few to support the women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848.

So it was natural enough that the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester asked Douglass to provide an oration for Independence Day. Since the Fourth that year fell on a Sunday, commemorations were held a day later. That suited Douglass perfectly, as African Americans had been celebrating the Fourth a day later for over two decades. Many blacks found the idea of joining in the festivities problematic at best, so long as white Americans continued to keep millions of slaves in chains. In any case, white revelers on the Fourth had a history of disrupting black processions. Many blacks made July 5 their holiday instead.

Though he was a newspaper publisher, Douglass believed that the spoken word remained the most effective way to move multitudes. As a boy he had secretly studied rhetoric and parsed the speeches of famous orators, though his first efforts at public speaking were modest. “It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect,” he recalled, “or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering.” Confidence came with time and practice.

Douglass also possessed a sense of humor—“of the driest kind,” observed one listener. “You can see it coming a long way off in a peculiar twitch of his mouth.”Occasionally he dramatized conversations to make a point, provoking laughter when he mimicked the drawl of a Southern planter.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton vividly recalled the first time she heard Douglass address a crowd. He stood over 6 feet tall, “like an African prince, majestic in his wrath. Around him sat the great antislavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor. On this occasion, all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass.”

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … ”

(…)

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