Sunday, February 25, 2007

Jamaica Kincaid's Courageous Voice

“I never thought of myself as courageous,” said Jamaica Kincaid as she took to the stage in John M. Greene Hall. “I just knew that I was going to write what I wanted to write.” Kincaid’s appearance opened a Pan-Africa conference organized by the Smith African and Caribbean Student Association. The conference program listed Kincaid as the Keynote Speaker. She jokingly said that had she seen the program before she agreed to read, she would have been too nervous to make her appearance. This nod to humility was ironic coming from a writer who has made a career of saying what “should not be said.”

Kincaid warned the audience that what she was about to read would not follow the rules that teachers like to emphasize. “I begin many sentences with And.” She read from her first book, At the Bottom of the River, describing with lush, surreal details the contentious interactions of a mother and daughter who occupy the two lowest rungs in a Colonial society. Growing up as an illegitimate child in Antigua, her “station in life was meant to be not far from the ground.”

Kincaid challenges readers with more than grammar. She said, “When I sit down to write, it is always in opposition to something.” Her novels, short stories, and essays have always addressed messy topics such as the mother/daughter relationship, Colonialism/globalization, and poverty.

When an audience member inquired, “Did you ever doubt yourself as a writer?” Kincaid replied, “When I write, I don’t believe anyone will read it—but you have to do it anyway. If you’re a writer, you must be arrogant and ruthless. Save being nice for when you’re not writing.” What great advice!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Last Word?

Apparently there's disagreement over who is really THE "preeminent scholar of Emily Dickinson." I went to Amherst Books today in search of her Complete Poems and found several volumes, some edited by Thomas Johnson, some by Ralph Franklin. Each book jacket named its editor the "foremost scholar of Dickinson's manuscripts." (It was funny in Little Miss Sunshine that the uncle character was so attached to his identity as the #1 Proust scholar, and this quibble seems equally silly.) They even disagree about HOW MANY poems Emily actually wrote: 1,775 or 1,789? Either way, I will probably read less than a thousand of them this week, although I did choose Johnson's "Complete Poems" because I appreciate his work on behalf of Dickinson (he was the first to restore her famous dashes after her neice and other publishers took them out)-- and, it came in a more affordable paperback version.

The guide to Emily Dickinson says that study of her work is "bound to a discussion of how her poems have been edited, and how her handwritten manuscripts have been interpreted in contemporary editions." In other words, since she never published her work or lived to see it in print, the act of printing her poems has become an act of interpretation. The early publishers grossly misinterpreted and changed her poems, removing all her signature dashes and even changing words! If anyone changes my clearly printed words after I am dead, my dispersed ashes will reassemble and blow blindingly into their eyes.

Another book I did not purchase today was Johnson's "Final Harvest," a selection of Dickinson's poems. I was amused and appalled at the title. FINAL harvest? As if his is the last, most authoritative version and selection there will be? The jacket even bore a review describing it as "the end of a long road of scholarship." How presumptuous!

Resistance is Fertile

Last Friday I went to the latest offering of Culture Shock, a most wonderful dance party put on semiannually by folks from UMass' Social Justice Program. They throw a great party while also communicating a heavy social message. This time the theme was Masquerade, in honor of Carnival, New Orleans, and Black History Month. "This is the month when we get to narrate the fucking story!" cried Julius from the stage. "Now, when I say go, I want to you all to yell out the name of a Black individual who has influenced you." We yelled. "Ok," he said, "now that we have gotten some spirits in the room, let's get on with it...."

The name I called out was Langston Hughes. There are plenty more current Black poets and writers who've inspired me (Patricia Smith's performance last year at Smith College was one, and hearing Tracie Morris do her "sound based poems" at Goddard in January was amazing), but Hughes was the first to influence me. The list of questions in "A Dream Deferred" are so potent, and challenge the reader more than simple statements would.

This past Martin Luther King Day, I was supposed to go to work. We didn't get it as a day off because they had "traded" it for the Friday after Thanksgiving so that we could have a long weekend. I did appreciate that long weekend, but it bothered me that Martin Luther King Day is forced to be the most flexible, the most disposable holiday. It would have been inconceivable to "trade" away President's Day. So, as my act of observance, I chose a poem by Hughes, "I , Too, Sing America," and put it on my desk by the front door for eveyone to see. I was glad, in a way, that I'd been challenged by the situation to mark the day in my own way, because if I had gotten the day off, as most people do, I would not have made so public a display of that poem.