Behind the "Irony Curtain"
Back in the day there was the Iron Curtain;
a boundary that essentially divided Europe in two. One side
under the oppressive control of the Soviet Union… the
other side not, and therefore free. As much a physical boundary,
it represented a battle of ideologies: Communism vs. Democracy…“Our
way of life” vs. theirs… “Better dead than
Red!” It was called the Cold War.
Back in the day, there was Nikita Khrushchev
telling us “We will bury you.”
Once in a melt-down moment at the U.N., he
supposedly banged his shoe on the table in protest, though
that has never been verified. But what is fact, is that his
son Sergei Khrushchev has been a U.S. citizen since 1999,
and a professor at Brown University. Perhaps causing dad,
to take a few spins in his grave. That would be akin to Nixon’s
daughters become Soviet citizens.
Back in the day, because of the threat of
the “Russkies,” we would conduct drills in our
schools about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
Which essentially came down to diving under a desk. (Little
did anyone realize, that one day the real threat to our kids
at school would be American psychopaths armed with semi-automatic
In time of course, we would win the Cold War even beating
the point spread. (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this
wall!”). But that was then and this is now.
Last month, it was Russian President Vladimir
Putin, taking the moral high ground in agreeing to have talks
with the U.S. aimed at getting a U.N. resolution to rid Syria—its
closest Middle Eastern ally— of its chemical weapons.
(Though he disagreed about which side in that civil war was
This occurred as we were preparing for “limited”
warfare, apparently with or without congressional approval
and with or without the sanction of the international community
at large. This was voiced in no uncertain hawkish terms by
Secretary of State John Kerry… in a previous life, a
It remains to be seen how all this plays out, but did one
ever imagine a day when the erstwhile “Evil Empire”
would be the one “tsk tsking” us, on
our warlike aggression? On the op-ed page in The
New York Times?
is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts
in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United
Millions around the world increasingly see America not
as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute
force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re
either with us or against us.’"
Then going on to make some points echoing
the very concerns of a war weary American public?
potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite
strong opposition from many countries and major political
and religious leaders, including the pope, will result
in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading
the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”
Whatever Putin’s agenda and gamesmanship,
we the people agreed with him by landslide margins according
to the polls, in our disapproval of proposed airstrikes against
Fair enough. Ah, but he went too far when in a more general
philosophical rumination, he took exception to our calling
working and personal relationship with President Obama
is marked by growing trust.
I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday.
And I would rather disagree with a case he made on
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see
themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
Dangerous? For daring to be great? We the
proud country of the Nike “Swoosh”? How
dare that duplicitous Muscovite! We’ve seen his kind
of Russia, 2013 Spy
in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, 1942
And finally, I remember as a kid that at the end of mass,
we used to say prayers for the conversion of Russia. Guess
are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s
blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Needless to say, the response
to all of this was intense in some quarters. Senator John
McCain asked for equal time to bring his case to the Russian
people, which Pravda.ru readily granted. And his response
was basically one of “so’s your old man!”
In his blistering attack on Putin, one was reminded of the
Cold War heat. But this is not your father’s iron curtain.
Rather, as has been demonstrated throughout the years “us”
vis-à-vis “them,” and in most socio-political
matters in general for that matter, a new curtain has been
woven. One of irony.
So what do we do about Syria?
I don’t know. I don’t even know how to figure
out my cable bill. But I do know that what Putin brought to
the table, was at the very least, time. Time to exhale. Time
to consider. Time to check on al-Assad’s compliance.
Even time enough perhaps, to hear if Dennis Rodman has anything
to say on the matter before he departs for still another trip
to North Korea. Speaking of irony.
In the world of The J. Peterman Company
founded by John Peterman—a man roundly spoofed in the
Seinfeld sitcom—it doesn’t even take clothes,
in the plural, to make the man. A singular “Classic
Moleskin Blazer” will do.
Poetry is wherever you find it.
golden autumn day.
enough swagger to be
seen across a room.
the kind that
frightens car salesmen.
the kind a 12-year-
old chocolate lab has.
happen, judgments follow. No rehearsed small talk. No
Message sent with a slight smile and direct eye contact.
begins. Heads turn.
approach. Blond and brunette people.
J. Peterman Company
Manual No. 110, Fall 2013
A Wolf at the Penguin’s
In the recent finalization
of the largest merger in the history of book publishing, Markus
Dohle, the CEO of the newly formed Penguin Random House,
stated that one goal of his enterprise is: “to crack
the code of discoverability” —of how to put books
in front of potential buyers— “in a world with
fewer bookstores.” Fewer bookstores indeed. Book sales
predominantly now come from on line, and have ever since the
Amazon business model that was introduced in ’94, flourished
beyond all expectations.
Penguin Random House now also boasts of being “the
world’s first truly global trade book publishing company.”
This striving for “biggest” is understandable,
given my own experience working at ad agencies that played
in the mergers and acquisitions game. Our pitch to prospective
clients always trumpeted that we were big, and “bigger
is better,” and you better believe it.
Yes, but does not something of value get lost in all that
bigness? This was a concern expressed in an op-ed in The
New York Times on the heels of the PRH merger:
“Whether literary culture is best served by the ceaseless
centralization of publishing is a question worth asking.”
And while the writer of the piece was at it, he even took
a shot at the newly formed company’s temporary logo…
“ a giant penguin looking away from a house —
is an awkward amalgam, a glyphic non sequitur.”
But in his lament, he also imagined a positive effect of “more
and more of the interesting literary fiction,” moving
toward smaller presses. And one such that he mentions, Graywolf
Press, seems to me a metaphor for the taking: there
will be a wolf at the penguin’s door.
Specifically, he sees them as a viable alternative for writers,
given their “personality, mission and focus.”
As a reader and writer, I have been aware of Graywolf
Press for quite some time. They have been in existence
for nearly 40 years. And they have experienced many noteworthy
achievements in making good on their mission to “champion
outstanding writers at all stages in their careers, to ensure
that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded market place.”
Yet despite being an independent, non-profit publisher and
located in Minneapolis, to label them “small”
would be a bit of a misnomer. That might imply they are not
a serious player, while in reality, their authors have received
many prestigious literary awards including a Pulitzer Prize,
a Nobel Prize in Literature, a National Book Critics’
Circle Award and a Commonwealth Prize.
In regards to poetry, their numbers at times have been quite
sizable. For example, their publication of the late Jane Kenyon’s
book, “Otherwise: New and Selected Poems,” has
continued to sell over 55,000 copies over a number of years.
This in a world where reaching 2,000+ sales, classifies a
poetry book as a “best seller.”
In its non-profit status, with grants from major national
funders in recognition of its position as a significant American
press, Graywolf continues to thrive. Sales so far
this year are at $1.25 million. (www.graywolfpress.org)
I was fortunate, along with various writers, literary agents,
publishers, editors, and patrons of the arts, to be invited
to a private reception at a Fifth Avenue home last month,
for a brief update on their state of affairs, and to celebrate
three of their more distinguished 2013 authors. And as we
retreated to the drawing room where they read excerpts from
their books, you could not help but feel that for all the
“Big Bang” in the publishing universe, it ultimately
comes down to a one-on-one: someone with food for thought
… someone hungry to hear it. And in this way, the wolf
as it were, will remain at the penguin’s door.
Quote of the Month
“I am a sinner. This is the
most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech,
a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
—Pope Francis I
response to an interviewer’s question:
Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?)
One Note, One Silence
That last chord in the Beatles' “A Day
in the Life” seems to last an eternity. In actuality,
and in E major, it goes on for 45 seconds. Which could seem
like 45 minutes depending upon the hallucinogen one was on.
Which might lead one to wonder what Yves Klein was on when
he wrote his “Monotone-Silence Symphony.” That
is, if one had any clue as to who is, or was, Yves Klein.
I certainly didn’t as I sat there in the Madison Avenue
Presbyterian Church last month anticipating a work that would
unfold over the course of 40 minutes, in which the first 20
minutes would consist of one note, followed by the next 20
minutes in complete silence.
Yes, that’s ONE note… 20
minutes. Silence… 20 minutes.
Klein as it turns out, was considered an important figure
in a post-war French artistic movement labeled Nouveau Réalisme.
He died in 1962 of a heart attack of all things, given his
tender age of 34. Ironically, he never had the chance to hear
his symphony as he had imagined it; a D major chord coming
from a fulsome orchestra of 70 musicians and singers.
In his own words, here is his thinking behind the piece:
“…one unique continuous sound,
drawn out and deprived of its beginning
and of its end,
creating a feeling of vertigo
and aspiration out of time.
Thus even in its presence,
this symphony does not exist…
However, in the world of possibilities
of conscious perception,
it is silence—audible presence.”
For all the emphasis on the audible—or
lack thereof—it is the visual of that real life assemblage,
including 10 cellists, 10 violinists, 3 bassists, 3 flutists,
3 French horn players (and a partridge in a pear tree), producing
a chord while breathing and bowing in such a way as to create
a sound with no audible breaks, that blows one away. There
are no mixing tricks in a recording studio at work here.
Further, it is the packed church of people
who have come to bear witness, as much as hear (or don’t
hear), that ultimately gives these 40 minutes such a sense
For certain, there was that sense of vertigo
of which Klein spoke. And one kept imagining a musical variation
that wasn’t there, but would soon be arriving at any
moment. Yet never did. As if waiting for Godot.
The silence part was equally stirring, in
that not a creature was stirring, not even a church mouse.
As one with a background in church-going, I did not hear one
“church cough” or creaking pew during the whole
soundless part of the piece. We had collectively bought into
the premise, and one did not dare be the one to break the
silence. We were now part of the performance. Or non-performance?
Yes, the mind would drift. But then the eyes
would return to the orchestra still frozen in position, as
they had been since that note had stopped on a dime. And though
we knew that silence was coming, it still came upon us taking
Abstraction can drive one to distraction. There is often a
fine line in Avant-garde and performance art, between an honest
attempt to resonate, and a masturbatory self indulgence. This
one—and in a church no less—had turned us all
on. And it got a standing ovation.
day is dealt out from a deck
that is the sum total of allotted time.
We play to make best of what can be.
Jack when nibble can trump an Ace of Spades.
Yet in such tricks there is no magic
we never learned sleight-of-hand.
Pick a card? Any card?
The universe is a menagerie
of white coats and black cassocks
wrestling with the genesis of nothingness
philosophers refereeing in gray:
Whatever is in front of you is your teacher.
front of us now
a collection of withered
scattered on a bed of disorientation—
his five senses up for grabs.
What would a wise man do?
Play “Attention” then play “Final
this is the hand of the wakeup call.
The King is dead; the life force lies
within her Majesty. Play the heart
as only you can
in a bid to woo and win the day.
Gigs and Plugs
As a new member of Artists
Without Walls, a multicultural community that
includes singers, dancers, painters, writers, oral historians,
poets, and cultural enthusiasts, (www.artistswithoutwalls.com),
I will be reading a few of my poems on October 22, 2013 at
a showcase event at The Cell Theater in Chelsea at 338
W. 23rd St. New York, NY. starting at 7pm.
I will return to that venue on November 26th in a joint performance
with three other artists: Actor Mary Tierney,
Painter Vince Nauheimer and Vocalist/Musician
Deni Bonet (her new music video is a
must see: www.youtube.com/denibonet)
Artist and friend Joan Thorne (www.joanthorne.com)
will have a gallery showing of her latest work beginning this