Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gopnik on Magic

Magicians are, in their relations with one another, both extremely generous and extremely jealous. Just as chefs know that recipes are of little value in themselves, magicians know that learning the method is only the beginning of doing the trick. What they call “the real work” isn’t the method, which anyone can learn from a book (and, anyway, all decent magicians know roughly how most tricks are done), but the whole of the handling and timing and theatrics of the effect, which are passed along from magician to magician and from generation to generation. The real work is the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas. The real work is what makes a magic effect magical. (Adam Gopnik, "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life," The New Yorker, March 17, 2008)

Of course, I really should have commented on this back in March or April, but this article is not as timely as the Hilary Clinton article in the same issue of The New Yorker!

Anyway, this was an excellent article by Adam Gopnik on magicians and how they understand what they do, and it was full of passages like this that seem to touch on the magic of other arts as well, including poetry. The "real work" is what separates the great magicians from the decent ones, and one could argue that it is a similar "real work" of "handling and timing and theatrics" that makes a great poet.

And that "real work" involves not just the timing of the individual performance (read, the individual poem), but a sense of "the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas"—that is, an understanding of what magic (or poetry) has already done, and what one's own contribution to that activity, that practice, that tradition, and its ideas is.


In the process of looking up that article, I discovered that one of my all-time favorite New Yorker profiles is also online: this one about the magician and actor Ricky Jay, from 1993. Now if only they had the David Mamet profile online, too (and there's a connection here, since Jay was in at least two of Mamet's movies, "The Spanish Prisoner" and "House of Games").

"Man is the animal who dreams. And when he dreams, he dreams of money." (Ricky Jay in "The Spanish Prisoner")

Monday, September 29, 2008

Slavery as Basis for an Ideology of Deregulation

The following is from "Jefferson's Concubine," Marie Morgan and Edmund S. Morgan's review of Annette Gordon-Reed's book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (the review is in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, dated October 9, 2008—as usual, the NYRB is published in the future ...):

What is important to the Hemings family's story is the harsh and nearly inescapable nature of the "peculiar institution" in the time of Thomas Jefferson. Racial identification was its sine qua non, and specifically race as legislated by slave masters, whose primary goal was "the maximum protection of property rights—with little or no intervention by the state or other third parties." (The quotations are apparently from Gordon-Reed's book.)

What struck me here is something that I perhaps should have noticed ages ago, but it is something that I have never seen commented on: the historical starting point for an ideology of deregulation and non-intervention by government is slavery. More precisely, it is the attempt by slave-owners to defend their property rights.

I would be an idiot if I had not noticed that "states' rights" derives from the defense of slavery, but this is the first time I have ever noticed the connection between deregulation and the defense of slavery.

So from now on, when I hear someone support "deregulation," I'll think "slaveholder ideology," just as I long have done on hearing "states' rights."

Dowd on Kissinger

My favorite line from the International Herald Tribune this morning is from Maureen Dowd on Friday's McCain-Obama debate:

"And who cares what Henry Kissinger thinks? He was wrong 35 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since then."

Harp Guitar, Pat Metheny

I received a note from my Mom about an old post of mine with a video of Michael Hedges playing Bach on a harp guitar. She asked me about the instrument, so I thought I'd post a link to a description of it, along with a video of Pat Metheny playing one:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lousy Govt. = Lousy Economy

My favorite line from the Presidential debate last night was from McCain (from the CNN transcript):

"The Iranians have a lousy government, so therefore their economy is lousy."

I'm sure Obama noted the irony (he's far too smart not to), but I suspect he thought it would be a bad tactic to point out that McCain had just described the current state of the United States. (Tactic, not strategy, and Obama knows the difference, I'm sure.)

Miles plays the drums

Miles had another open house at the drum school Basel last week. This time he did not play with me (as he did last year); instead, he played a drum duet with his drum teacher Lorenz Hunziker (whom you can't see in the video):

Paul Newman

Back in the seventies, my favorite movie was "The Sting," and another favorite was "Cool Hand Luke." So I guess Paul Newman was one of my favorite actors back then. I had kind of forgotten about him, so I was surprised to be so sad at hearing of his death. Here are two of my favorite scenes from "Cool Hand Luke":

"What we have here is failure to communicate" is a line that crosses my mind many times every year!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Exactly Woody Guthrie

Here's one I like by Mark Halliday, "Not Exactly Woody Guthrie."


I like the two explanations of the simple act of checking "to see whether the field goal was good," the simple one in the first stanza (a social explanation), and the more complex aesthetic explanation in the second, which captures so cleanly one difference between sport and art.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shakespeare parodies

There are three fun Shakespeare parodies up at New Verse News:

McCoriolanus, by Bill Costley
William Shakespeare's Obameo and Johniette, by Olga Wayne
Johniette's Soliloquy, by Aaron Gillego

Nice coincidence that both Wayne and Gillego came up with those names!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No on 8, you Californians!

Thanks to C. Dale Young for posting this one (and as I said in his comments, I'm 44, I like to write poems, and my sister just married her girlfriend in San Diego last weekend):

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

DMB on HST and other things

My friend Don Brown quoted Hunter S. Thompson here:

"McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for."

(Don and I, we're just linking back and forth to each other!)

Jazz for Obama

I suspect that New York City is full of people who are jazz fans and who plan to vote for Barack Obama. If you are one of them, kill two birds with one stone and get yourself down to the Jazz for Obama concert on October 1. A great lineup, wish I could be there! Mehldau! Lovano! Stanley Jordan! Hank Jones!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Swerve, in Horizon Review

My poem "Swerve" is in the first issue of Salt's new online journal Horizon Review. It's nice to be there with such a fine list of poets (hi, Rob; hi, George; hi, James; hi, everyone).

Understanding the election

Justin Evans posted a funny, somewhat scary list of points that will help anyone understand the American election.

Here's the first, to give you a taste of it:

* If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're 'exotic, different.'

* Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, a quintessential American story.

Don Brown on DFW

Don Brown has written a thoughtful piece on (literary) suicide in response to David Foster Wallace's suicide on Friday.

Update: There's also a nice DFW piece on Caleb Crain's blog, with long quotations from an interview Crain did with DFW in 2003.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reasons to collect books

Here's another gem from Wondermark, this time on book collecting.

Johnny Cash, by David Bauer

[My friend David Bauer wrote this article for the Basler Zeitung on Friday, September 11. I liked it so much, I asked him to do an English version, which I edited for him and am now posting here. I am not actually such a Johnny Cash fan as he has become, but I have always liked his singing and his songs, and I like the way David marks how a particular singer can become a touchstone for one's own life—for me, Jerry Garcia and Greg Brown most of all.]

What makes Johnny Cash so essential

By David Bauer (from the Basler Zeitung, September 12, 2008)

When Johnny Cash died, I did not care. Five years ago it was, but I did not remember until I looked it up. Johnny Cash was a name to me. A name that one knew, but that meant nothing to me. Love is a burning thing...nanana...ring of fire. And that was it.

Today, Johnny Cash is to my soul what oxygen is to my lungs - even though I discovered him only one year ago, by accident, in awkward circumstances. I watched the movie about his life, Walk The Line, on my laptop. The audio track was crap, so Cash started stuttering every few seconds. That was it: My "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" moment. Johnny Cash introduced himself to me, but the man I saw was Joaquin Phoenix. I got to know his songs, but Joaquin Phoenix sung them. But still, it triggered something. I craved to learn more about this person and his music.

Pretty late I was. Cash had started his career some fifty years ago, and even the late milestones that made him known in my generation had already occurred a few years back: the movie and his late work, the "American Recordings" produced by Rick Rubin. Singing cover versions of some very well-known songs, Cash made a sweet offer to all those to whom even the word "Country" smelled a little funny. So Cash took the stage at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival amidst Britpop madness and was invited to be part of a Simpsons episode (where he gave his voice to a coyote). Yet it was his cover version of the Nine Inch Nails classic "Hurt" that eventually secured Cash a place in the 21st century. Today, Coldplay regularly cover his "Ring of Fire" at their concerts, and you even get to hear it when you wait on call-centre hotlines.

But what exactly is it that makes Johnny Cash so compelling, so essential? Even today, or maybe even more so today.

First of all, it is the music, of course. Country minus cowboy kitsch. Cash was a genius at making his songs easy with his guitar, while at the same time adding some true severity with his voice. A voice that did not fail to be haunting even when it became fragile in Cash's late years. His version of "Hurt" is simply one of the most touching songs ever sung.

Cash's song are not complex; instead, they come down to a kind of musical trinity: a melody, a voice, a story. This is true of his whole discography, from his earliest songs like "Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" to the last songs recorded shortly before his death. True mastery lies in reduction, as only few understand.

Yet it is not only the music that makes Cash unique, but just as much where it came from.

Cash's biography is full of cracks, sparkling highs and dark lows. And there's a love story that easily matches the great dramas of world literature: His relationship with June Carter is a recurrent theme running through Cash's life. Their paths crossed early, in music and in private, and after some twists and turns, the musical duet turned into a love affair for eternity. Shortly before his seventieth birthday, Cash sang: "Love is love and doesn't change in a century or two."

This is another secret: Cash's songs are deeply rooted in life, so they just keep growing and growing.

Today, bands are disposable commodities. The music industry has turned into a rushing merry-go-round where you jump on only to be thrown off the next second. Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, but that's it. You rarely find true personalities in music, whose biography and work develop together, musicians that have something to say.

But why Cash? Why not Presley, why not Dylan, why not Cohen? I don't know. Comparing quality does not help. Music is not either good or bad, it's only about one thing: Does it touch you? Cash touches me to the quick, while with Elvis, I feel nothing.

What makes the difference is this je-ne-sais-quoi that you cannot describe, only experience. Like the other day, when I came across Johnny Cash again.

On the very evening I have to let my personal June Carter go, I zap through glimmering TV programmes, lost in thought, and suddenly, I come across Walk the Line. Johnny Cash and June Carter singing "Jackson." No further evidence is needed: You do not look for Johnny Cash; he finds you.

I switch off the telly, pull everything from Johnny Cash out of my record collection and let song after song have its effect on me. It's at moments like these that all the power of Johnny Cash's music unfolds. His music is the good friend that comforts you without pity. The friend who lays his hand on your shoulder and says: You're right; life's a monster that eats you. But if you're tough enough, if you believe in yourself and the good in life, it will spit you out again.

Learning from Johnny Cash is learning about life. If you listen very closely, you might even understand it one day, that strange thing, life.


I have only ever read one piece by David Foster Wallace ("Roger Federer as Religious Experience"), but that was such a beautiful piece of writing about one of my favorite subjects (tennis) that I find myself deeply saddened by the news of his death by hanging on Friday.

My friend Ulrich Blumenbach is in the last stages of writing the German translation of Infinite Jest. How odd it must be to have the author of something you are translating die while you are doing so. (Perhaps like having the author you are writing criticism on die while you are writing the criticism, something that has also never happened to me.)

Perhaps I am struck as much by the deaths of Reginald Shepherd and DFW because they are both of my generation (DFW was 46; Reginald 44; and I am 44).


Here's a little study of Sarah Palin, "She's Not Ready," by Bob Herbert.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Campaign of Lies

"... John McCain is running a campaign almost entirely based on straight up lies."

If you're not sure what to do about the horror of McCain's campaign, then follow the advice of Josh Marshall:

"This is clearly a testing time for Obama supporters. But I want to return to a point I made a few years ago during the Social Security battle with President Bush. Winning and losing is never fully in one's control -- not in politics or in life. What is always within our control is how we fight and bear up under pressure. It's easy to get twisted up in your head about strategy and message and optics. But what is already apparent is that John McCain is running the sleaziest, most dishonest and race-baiting campaign of our lifetimes. So let's stopped being shocked and awed by every new example of it. It is undignified. What can we do? We've got a dangerously reckless contender for the presidency and a vice presidential candidate who distinguished her self by abuse of office even on the comparatively small political stage of Alaska. They've both embraced a level of dishonesty that disqualifies them for high office. Democrats owe it to the country to make clear who these people are. No apologies or excuses. If Democrats can say at the end of this campaign that they made clear exactly how and why these two are unfit for high office they can be satisfied they served their country."

McCain may win, but those who have seen through him have to do their best to expose him as the liar he is.

Obama as a Historic Figure

Here's another spin on Obama as a "historic" figure (from Wondermark).

Reginald Shepherd

"I write because I would like to live forever."

Reginald Shepherd, "Why I Write"

Rest in peace, Reginald.


"A poem has never oppressed anyone ..." ("The Other's Other")

"But literature is one of the few areas of life in which I do not feel oppressed, in which I have experienced true freedom." ("The Other's Other")

"I have an intense desire to rescue these things that have touched me and place them somewhere for safekeeping, which is both impossible and utterly necessary." ("Why I Write")

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Darwinian Vision

Have you made the trip to Dayton, TN, yet to see the image of Charles Darwin on a wall?

(Some say it's Stephen Jay Gould. Some say it's Carl Sagan. Some say it's a stain.)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Avantgarde Times

Two of my poems appeared in the June 2008 issue of the online journal Avantgarde Times. You can go straight to the section with poems here. You have to search for "Daylight Savings" to find mine (or "Moths," which is the second poem), but you can also find it by just reading from the beginning until you find them!

An Artist's Text Book, by Jan Svenungsson

My friend Jan Svenungsson recently published an excellent book about writing for artists that will surely be of interest to all creative people who are thinking about writing about their own work: An Artist's Text Book.

The book is available from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts (because that's where he taught the course that led to the book):

Finnish Academy of Fine Arts
att: Anna Herlin
Kasarmikatu 36
00130 Helsinki

or by email: anna.herlin@kuva.fi

I proofread the book for Jan, and I assure you that it is an excellent read! (There's a quote from it here.)

See Something Different: Joe Biden

I like this line from Joe Biden about speeches at the Republican convention:

"... their America is not the America I live in. They see something different than I see."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Baker Street

Marc Krebs writes a column in the Basler Zeitung every Wednesday subtitled "Yesterday's Pop on Today's iPod." This past Wednesday he wrote about Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," so that was the song going through my head all afternoon. Since I hardly ever listen to the radio, and I don't own the song on CD, the only place I have perhaps heard it in the past three decades, if at all, is the supermarket. ("New Kid on Town" by the Eagles is the one I always seem to hear there that I find at least listenable.) But I still have most of the song in my head.

Two other songs that came up in the course of Wednesday afternoon as Rafferty's song rambled through my brain were Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" and Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues." Perhaps because of the saxophones, perhaps because they were all hits at approximately the same time. Of the three, "Deacon Blues" is the absolute masterpiece, but the other two are songs I'm always glad to hear (and I actually own both the Al Stewart and the Steely Dan).

I was trying hard to remember the name of Rafferty's previous band, and the name of their big hit, but I couldn't; I had to go to Wikipedia to find out. But the song is a good one: "Stuck in the Middle with You," by Stealers Wheel (Stealers ... Steely!). Like "Baker Street," it's one I have not heard for ages but that still comes to mind relatively often (how well one remembers songs from one's early teens!).

Friday, September 05, 2008

Crain on Palin

Caleb Crain has an excellent post on the "mythography," if you will, of Sarah Palin (and GWB, too).

The Ensemble, by Floyd Skloot

It seems like every time I read a poem by Floyd Skloot I like it. Today's example is on Poetry Daily: "The Ensemble."

I love the way it approaches Shakespeare without too much awe and reverence, but also without too much ambition; the poem seems pitched at just the right level. And, as Rob points out, the rhymes are delicious, as are the line breaks.

Gonna have to get me a Skloot collection one of these moons.

Donny O'Rourke and Padraig Rooney: a poetry reading in Basel, September 17, 2008

[Click on the image to see the poster in a larger format.]

Chris Smither in the UK

The wondrous Chris Smither will be touring the UK in October (starting in Worcester on Sept. 30, actually). I saw him in the summer of 2007 at the Great Waters Folk Festival in New Hampshire and was utterly floored by his guitar playing and by his songwriting. "Leave the Light On" is still one of the best new songs I have heard in years.

So for you readers of this blog who live in the UK: check out the list of shows below, and go check out Chris if he's playing near you!

You Londoners, that's October 6 at the Luminaire!

And Rob in Glasgow: that's October 12 at the Tall Ship in Glasgow Harbor!


Huntingdon Hall
01905 611427
8pm, £12/10

South Street Arts
0118 9606060
8pm, £12

The Garrick
01543 412121
7:30pm, £12

Sundial Theatre
01285 654228
7:30pm, £10/12

Tremayne Hall
01872 262466
8pm, £10

Plough Arts Centre
01805 624624
7:30pm, £12/10

The Luminaire
020 7372 7123

The Mill Arts Centre
01295 279002

Hebden Bridge Trades Club
01422 845265
8:30pm, £8/10

Little Theatre, Gateshead
The Jumpin Hot Club
£12, 0191 2 605 605

Brookfield Hall
01505 706346

The Tall Ship at
Glasgow Harbour
0870 220 1116
£12, Doors at 7:30pm

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008

McCain is a pain

May McCain go bowl
with Dukakis and Dole.

May he end up as pale
as Walter Mondale.

May he be as bored
as Gerald R. Ford.

(A few lines in response to my friend Don's post.)

Red-Green in Basel

A statement by my friends Mirjam Ballmer and Peter Jossi:

– Red-green in Basel is a success story that should continue!

In Basel and Switzerland, there is no place for giant election campaigns like those in the USA—and there are no Obamas... The little "sister republic" of the USA only needs small election campaigns. However small they may be, though, for many Swiss with English-speaking backgrounds the local political system is still not easy to understand. As a result of the elections in 2004, there is a red-green majority in the government of Kanton Basel-Stadt, as well as (almost) in the parliament (Grosser Rat).

Mirjam Ballmer, born in the USA and a US citizen (Grossrätin GRÜNE), and Peter Jossi, father of two girls with dual Swiss and American citizenship (Grossratskandidat and board member of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Basel-Stadt, SP BS) provide a number of good reasons why Basel-Stadt must stay red-green in the future – and why both of them should be given 3 X's on every election list.

Integration for all people in Basel

An open and tolerant mindset has a long tradition in Basel. For centuries, immigrants have contributed to the cultural identity and economic success of our region. This ability to interact with different cultures and backgrounds has become very useful and important in a global world.

Red-green Basel stands for the long Swiss tradition of openness and development. We know that immigrants from all over the world have helped to build the Swiss success story. The basic rule has to be equal opportunities for everybody – to the benefit of each person and of society as a whole.

Basel – a strong center of business and research – to the benefit of all

The Basel region has a dynamic economy. Innovative businesses, highly qualified employees, and a well-developed infrastructure offering a range of services, along with openness and a high standard of living, are the basis for a successful future for all of us.

Red-green Basel is the driving force to make sure that economic development will include social and ecological sustainability.

Renewable energy – for the future of our children and grandchildren

Fossil fuels like petroleum, petrogas and other non-renewable sources are dead ends. The future lies in renewable energy: the power of water, wind, sun and geothermic sources.

Red-green Basel was the driving force in Basel-Stadt in making sure that the non-use of atomic energy has been made a binding obligation in the new consitution of Kanton Basel-Stadt. As a result, Basel uses (almost) exclusively renewable energies.

High quality of state services – responsible tax reductions for all

Under the leadership of SP Finance Minister Eva Herzog, Basel-Stadt has managed to reduce its state debt. In order to stay attractive, Basel needs to make many significant investments in the coming years. It will require strong cooperation with the neighbouring cantons and countries to address the challenges in such areas as the Universities (Universität und Fachhochschule), the health-care system and public and private transportation.

Red-green Basel has established a new tax law that gives serious tax reductions to low and middle incomes and to families, while not increasing the tax level on high incomes.

A wide variety of culture for every taste and for all ages

Basel is the social and economic center of a trinational region with about a million people. To life up to this role, we need more "freshness” and a downtown Basel full of life and culture.

Red-green Basel calls for a wide variety of culture. Besides the established institutions, we also need to actively promote new creative approaches to culture and to support the young professionals who offer them.

Strong state schools for a family-friendly Basel

The children are our future. Basel therefore has to be a city that families like to move to, where children like to grow up und where they get optimal support in our public schools. Our "Volksschulen” are the integration centers of our neighbourhoods . This is where our children get to know and respect each other, before social and/or cultural differences can cause separation.

Red-green Basel calls for early support for immigrant children to learn German. Strong "Quartierschulen mit Tagesstrukturen" support the integration process and offer children a good learning infrastructure, while taking pressure off their families.

Attractive housing and low-traffic neighbourhoods with open areas and parks

Attractive housing is in great demand in Basel. To establish new and attractive neighbourhoods is one of the most important goals of red-green Basel. At the same time, we have to make sure that there are enough open areas and parks for the whole population of Basel.

Red-green Basel is working on significantly improving public transit for the benefit of the local people and commuters. The street network for pedestrians and bikers has to be massively improved in close cooperation with the officially recognized "Quartiervertretungen,” which coordinate and communicate the needs and demands of the local people.

Mirjam Ballmer, Grossrätin GRÜNE (Liste 8, Wahlkreis Kleinbasel)

- Projektleiterin Naturschutzpolitik bei Pro Natura
- Vorstand Grüne Partei und junges grünes bündnis
- Kulturstadt Jetzt
- Pfadi


Peter Jossi, Grossratskandidat SP (Liste 5, Wahlkreis Grossbasel-West)

- Koordinator SP KMU-Netzwerk (BS), selbständiger Berater / www.bionetz.ch
- GL-Mitglied SP BS (QV-Koordination)
- Vizepräsident Primarschulinspektion Basel,
- Vizepräsident Quartierkoordination St.Johann