Saturday, October 11, 2008

Noble Prizes

Javier Huerta's latest post on the Poetry Foundation blog offers a massive dose of sweet relief to those of us tired of hearing about fake poetry anthologies.

"Lamenting" the fact that he has yet to win a Nobel Prize, (I say "yet" because one cannot the deny the possibility for a writer of Javier's ilk), Huerta offers up the reasons why, in a nod to Juan Felipe Herrera's "187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border." At least two of the Becauses listed are not Javier's.

"Because there isn't much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today." These words were attributed to John Hollander, winner of the Poetry Society's Frost Medal, their lifetime acheivement award. Nothing about that level of ignorance says "medal," "lifetime" or "acheivement" to me. Though it does strike me as frosty. Nyuk nyuk.

Speaking of ignorance:

"Because the U.S. is too isolated, too insular. We don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. Our ignorance is restraining." This was actually a quote from Horace Engdahl, a Swedish member of the Nobel committee.

This judge went on to say that while "there is powerful literature in all big can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world...not the United States." First of all, I wouldn't want to participate in a big dialogue about literature if the conversation's focus is on Europe. The last time Europe was the focus of any historical conversation, they created the Treaty of Paris (and Adolf Hitler's subsequent career.) Secondly, what precisely is a "big culture?" Julia de Burgos was a big poet, certainly deserving of Nobel consideration. One wonders if her culture (Puerto Rico) was big enough for the Nobel committee of the time. And given Engdahl's statement, I wonder the same thing for non-big, non-European writers and cultures today.

Huerta points out that this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the French writer Jean-Marie Le Clézio, made his bones at least in part by detailing his spiritual and literal journeys though parts of Africa, Mexico, and Central America, searching out spiritual consciousness in the Indian cultures he encountered along the way. Orientalism, Javier says, is back in fashion. I don't want to knock a writer I haven't met or read, and perhaps his work is sincere, but it's interesting to note that the citation from the Nobel Foundation lauds Le Clézio as an "explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." I don't think I need to point out the problem of language here, but just so we're all clear, neither Mexico nor Central America is below anyone. Just sayin'.

I know my boy Oscar will appreciate the mathematics of my present dilemma. In my MFA workshop, we are negotiating the difference between art and artifice. Or well, at least I am. What good is it to have the technical proficiency if you don't have the ideas? Likewise, what good are ideas if you don't have the artifice to enact them into substance? Craft is one side of the equation; heart is the other. In order to present the equation to the student, balanced or not, one must possess both. Right now, I've been too invested in statistics and geometric theorems to pay attention to the algebra. Or maybe I just need to shut up and write, que no?

In either case, it's been good to sit and write and think for the last few days pretty nonstop. I've got this new job that is deliciously absent of intellectual engagement, yet chock full of shit to write about. And when my boss is not fretting about legal papers, I sneak in some writing too. They pay me for this. Not enough to buy land with, but enough to pay bills. I can't complain about my life, or my immediate surroundings, though I think my fiancé and I could use another bedroom for the books. (Seven bookcases, y'all. And it's not enough.)

The working class part of me wants to put my nose back to the grindstone and get to the task of writing, editing, planning, and not have to say anything to the Hollanders and Engdahls of the world because I'm too busy actually doing the work to worry about who's paying attention. I can see myself being very Ishmael Reed in that way. On the other hand, the budding revolutionary Baraka-Coleman-Davis-Assata-Mumia in me wants to take a blow torch to every ornate conference room in my immediate path. Then I think about something else Javier said: "Because to refuse awards is another way of accepting them with more noise than is normal." And well, damn, ain't that a kick in the ass? (I would also add, to REFUSE to GIVE awards is another way of awarding them with more noise than is normal. Take note, interested parties.) Is it really that noble to be so anti-establishment? Depends on the establishment, I think.

All this to say. Awards are cute, institutions are cuter, but writers, real writers, are a dying breed. Any means we need to create more of them, I'm all for. Meantime, I'm gonna be a part of a big pro-Obama reading on Sunday afternoon, 2pm, at St. Mark's Poetry Project. I hope to see all of my friends, Nobel Laureates and non-Laureates alike, present and listening. Then, another amazing institution, Ron Kavanaugh's Mosaic Magazine, celebrates its 10th anniversary this Tuesday evening at Acentos, with a reading by the always-captivating Patrick Rosal.


oscar bermeo said...

Your boy Oscar is happy that these questions are doggin' at you, cuz I know you will find the right answer in your writing and isn't that the most noble prize a writer can have?

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Francisco Aragón said...

Glad to see you're back. Was beginning to wonder where you'd been hiding.

Rich said...

I could've said the same thing about you, Francisco!

OB: The answers don't come as furiously as they did at the Blue Ox, but they are coming.

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