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Catharine Stimpson
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This is a very sweet comment. -- Kate Stimpson
Toggle Commented Nov 7, 2009 on Watching Students Eat at The Best American Poetry
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Bill T. Jones has done it again. Globally recognized as icon and genius, he might have taken up the artist’s equivalent of daily golf and residency in a comfy condo in a Sunshine State. He might have lectured here, taught there (though only as a Distinguished Visitor), served as juror for prestigious prizes, and published his memoirs. The nomadic dance artist might have settled down. Not Bill T. Jones. Once again, he has cast himself into the sea of risk---with its stony shores and crazy currents. He is one of the prime movers in bringing a new musical called Fela! to Broadway. Though in the Eugene O’Neill Theater, this is a radically different sort of Electra and Iceman. Jones is Fela!’s director and choreographer, co-author of its book, and one of the three who first conceptualized it. The risk? Will the mainstream Broadway audience, so content with productions that are at once lavish and conventional, buy into the bright colors and defiant energies of Fela!? That “!” is the diacritical mark of the show’s intensity. The financial and psychic risk of Fela! is spread, like that of all Broadway shows, but at the end, as the audience buzzes and applauds, it is Jones, with his long arms and legs, who bounds onto the stage and dances with the actors. I predict Fela! will succeed, that its passion and urgency and skill will prove contagious. So I deeply hope. Fela Kuti was an African musician who helped to propel and drive the music of his continent into global culture. The play is set in the Lagos, Nigeriaof the late 1970s. A vicious, corrupt military regime is in power. Post-colonialism has neither shaken off the past nor forged a better future. Fela, like his mother before him, is a prophet and architect of democracy. For that reason alone, the regime will torture them when it can and murder them if it can. Fela is performing in his nightclub, the Shrine, with his fellow musicians and dancers, among them his band of Queens. As the action on stage flows through the theater, as the choreography of the Queens oes muscularly and elegantly into the aisles, members of the audience become Shriners, patrons of the club and members of its aroused, shrewd community. Through song and dance and monologue, Fela is explaining why he is going to leave Nigeria that night. Yet, after a journey through his past and through the underworld to consult with his murdered mother, Fela reverses his decision. He stays and organizes a demonstration in honor of her and others of the righteous dead. He himself will die two decades later---at home in Nigeria Jones, like the Fela he has imagined for us, is a singular individual. All icons and geniuses are. That is one reason why they earn such status. Without compromising the individuality of each, Jones and Fela are companions, even brothers. They are cosmopolitans, but deeply rooted and grounded in a specific culture. They are courageously political,... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
Gone are the great public events of the last days---Halloween, the Marathon, the election, the World Series. The great crowds they drew have dissipated. The prosy days of mundanity return. For a glimpse of ordinary public life, go watch college students eat. I ordered a salad and a yoghurt in a cafeteria of a private urban university. How well the students eat, I marveled. The utensils may be plastic, but the gastronomy veers towards the sumptuousness of an upscale supermarket. The student body is multicultural. There are cuisines from a rich variety of traditions: a kosher room; a vegetarian salad bar; a refrigerator shelf of sushi; a Latin inflected sandwich counter. The student body believes in individual choice. Stand before the racks of potato chips. One of the several brands offers four flavors: backyard bar-be-que; jalapeno; honey dijon; sweet onion. The student body supports wellness and healthy food, the vitamin waters and chicken noodle soup and fresh fruit. But the student body also wants its treats. Waiting to be picked up by the cash registers are cup cakes, ice cream treats,and hand-made gourmet lollipops. If a student's sleep habits are irregular, one food counter offers an All Day Breakfast, including breakfast burritos and French toast stuffed with bananas, cream, and carmelized orange, offered with the counter-programming of fresh fruit. The students mingle easily amidst this plenty. They talk, sometimes exuberantly. If they are eating alone, they have their cell phones. They dress casually, many of them in hoodies. They are sweet, smart, and well-mannered. I have never seen one speak rudely to the servers of the food or to the man wiping off the trays the students bus to the large garbage bins. I fear that the servers and cleaning men might have had different experiences from mine. The students have worries and anxieties---about their identities, relationships, families, and classes. They or their families may be under great financial strain and in debt. This food costs money. Some of the students struggle with paralyzing insecurities and agonizing depressions. They carry medications in the pockets of their jeans or in their backpacks. The student dining room is no instant paradise. However, far grubbier public dining rooms exist, some of them in far less affluent colleges. If we believed in decent public spaces for students---the "next generation" and "the future" in conventional public rhetoric---all student dining halls would be places of plenty and mild comfort and ease. But if we were to have a secret ballot, how many of us would check "yes" to the statement, "America believes in decent public spaces for all students. Really, it does, really." Continue reading
Posted Nov 5, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
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I long for a poet who can beat out some stanzas about November 3, 2009, in the United States, the day of an off-year, off-kilter election. Some clumps and clusters of citizens went to the polls. The results that we know are as messy as the country itself. By now even the most myopic of observers can list the signs of the mess. Maine mauls gay marriage. But Houston puts a lesbian into a run-off for mayor. New York elects a Democrat to Congress from a traditionally Republican district that the Limbaughers and Palinettes have staked out as a reserve of conservative purity. But Virginia and New Jersey put the swords of democracy on the shoulders of Republicans and dub them governor. The cocks of the Grand Old Party gloat and crow. Boy, oh, boy, some whisper, the election of 2009, not boring old health care, is Obama's Waterloo. New York City almost says that its mayoralty cannot be bought, not even by a man as able as Michael Bloomberg. But City Council seats go to Democrats by majorities so gallingly large that one fears for democracy. What poet can travel from oil-rigged sea to old-rigged sea to capture the mess? What poet can balance the grief of real economic loss and the sour anger of the teabaggers who fear loss? What poet can satirize the public preening and the posturing of the suits and pants suits in the media or public forums? And what poet can dig out the mumbling excuses of the romantic followers of Obama in 2008 who seem not to have managed to trip the light fantastic to the polls in 2009? My vote: an Alexander Pope with a well of democratic yearnings. Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
My neighbor in the elevator was giddy with excitement on Monday, November 2. He was on his way to Philadelphia. His family had tickets for the 5th game of the World Series between the Phillies and the Yankees. He was going to join a crowd enthralled with the fact of being at the game. The Phillie supporters would wave their white towels to create an energy flow for their champions. He, though normally an ironic man, would cheer and cheer for his Yankees. Lucky him? Most fans would say yes. I love sports and take sides, often rabidly. Watching Roger Federer get beaten in the 2009 US Open made me feel sick. So did the Yankee loss on Monday night. However, give me a bleacher of my own far away from the huge modern sports dome. The first time I saw such a swollen structure I thought, in disgust, “This is a shopping mall.” My bleacher of choice can be in a small, old arena. The toilets may stink. The hotdogs may be lukewarm. But the fans will sit together in egalitarian simplicity. Or, my bleacher of choice can be a chair or a bed in front of the TV. Of course the cameras control what I can see. They decide how often I will watch Chase Utley, the current Philadelphia Home Run King, lean back in his dugout, hair slicked back, face thickly handsome, as happy as a lion who has just made a kill. Better to submit to a camera’s gaze than to a huge scoreboard pounding at me and exhorting me to scream and cheer when my team does well, and to follow the bouncing ads. Whatever the exact site of a bleacher of my own, let me shout at my own pace, despair at my own pace, pound the glove of my soul at my own pace, pray at my own pace. The real test of the fan is not how we behave in the crowd but how we behave when we have no witnesses to our fierce loyalties. Go, Yankees. And Roger Federer, return in all your glory. Continue reading
Posted Nov 3, 2009 at The Best American Poetry