Friday, November 9, 2018

The Best American Poetry, 2018

David Lehman series ed., Dana Gioia, guest ed., The Best American Poetry, 2018, (Best American Poetry Series) Scribner Poetry, 2018.

     My editorial method was simple and unoriginal.  For twelve months (starting October 2016) I spent two or three hours each day reading new poetry. I read through every journal I could find as well as dozens of online journals. I bought piles of unfamiliar small magazines and subscribed to new journals. I read every issue of every literary magazine in my university's large periodical room.  When I traveled, I brought along a separate bag of journals to read on the plane or in the hotel room.  Meanwhile the series editor sent me weekly packets of poems that had caught his attention.  I initially wondered if David Lehman might want to press his suggestions. He is a persuasive advocate for the poetry he loves.  Lehman, however, gave me complete editorial autonomy.  I told no one outside my family that I had taken on the assignment. I didn't want to be lobbied by poet friends and acquaintances.
    I'm not sure how many thousands of poems I read. I surely broke the five-digit mark. Every time a poem grabbed my attention, I earmarked it or printed it out for rereading. My studio became a mountain range of periodicals, printouts, and photocopies. The most interesting part of the process was rereading and comparing the hundreds of poems that had made the first cut. Week after week I read and sorted the poems into three scientific categories -- Yes, No, Maybe.  After much agonizing, I made the final selections. 


     This tale of extreme research raises a question: Why didn't the university library's large periodical room have more poetry journals? Actually, I can answer that one myself.  Many years ago during a budget shortfall the library where I worked slashed periodical subscriptions. The poetry journals were the first to go.  They weren't expensive -- we could have bought all of them for less than the cost of one science journal subscription.  But library use statistics indicated that almost nobody ever read them. 
     One problem was, most literary journals weren't listed in any of our indexes. Nowadays, Project Muse indexes a few of the well-known poetry journals (most of them represented in this book according to an appended "List of Magazines where the Poems were First Published"). But there are also zillions of small-press poetry journals. In order to submit to them, the poet sends in a few poems with a small fee that presumably keeps the journal going. After a while, this process of fee-based submission becomes deeply discouraging. It feels like everyone submits poems but nobody reads. 
     Yet libraries are nonetheless doing a disservice by ignoring poetry.  The mistake, I think, is trying to focus on  "important" poetry. There are a few poets who are famous enough so that their books are likely to circulate (I'd say Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, etc...  I doubt that Gioia particularly likes any of them).  However, I'd argue that the  most important poetry for librarians to collect is localized, written by the local community of writers (including at local institutions of higher education) but also (don't laugh) nature poetry. Gioia identifies an emerging trend of politically charged place-based poetics.  He writes, "The nature poem had become the major vehicle for political meditation and protest.  The bright innocence of Walt Whitman's American Eden has been overtaken by Robinson Jeffers's dark prophesy of spacious modern civilization."
    While librarians were busy cutting poetry from our collections, the poetic form has re-emerged as an particularly  important voice responding to the slow emergency of the Anthropocene. The Dark Mountain Project explicitly makes the Robinson Jeffers connection, and in Uncivilised Poetics (Dark Mounain10) the editors write "What's the point of poetry when the streets of Syria have been bombed beyond recognition? What's the point of poetry when the permafrost is melting?  But poetry matters because it offers an alternative reality --it refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial cult; aslant, it invites us to feel our way in the dark." If libraries want to capture this important voice, they are going to have to rediscover poetry. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

No Immediate Danger (Carbon Ideologies v.1)

 No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies

William T. Vollmann. No Immediate Danger (Carbon Ideologies V. 1). Viking 2018. 

Carbon Ideologies also contains about 129,000 words of source notes, citations and calculations.  I am sorry to say that Viking could not justify the cost of printing these.  Therefore, Carbon Ideologies will be the first of my books to contain a component which exists only in the electronic ether (see  I will deposit a copy of that section in my archive at the Ohio State University. [p.v]


     Carbon Ideologies, a two-volume doomer tour de force, is addressed to a future person in a world ravaged by climate change. Vollmann's editor wanted him to trim content from this sprawling book.  He agreed to trim the list of references as long as all the content could remain. As Vollmann dryly points out, it is ironic to store references for this particular book in a system that will fail as soon as the grid fails. If Vollmann's gloomy predictions come to pass the single archived hard copy in Ohio probably doesn't stand much of a chance, either. 

     There is a digital preservation initiative at Stanford University with the acronym LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) but even that depends on a functioning grid to supply electricity for access to digital archives. The librarians at Stanford are aware of this weakness. The LOCKSS website says that, " technology failures, economic failures and social failures all pose threats to the protection of digital content."  In Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake the grid goes down in a spectacular fashion.  She satirizes digital libraries  to explain why the entire history of human knowledge is lost in the "Waterless Flood."

     Which raises questions with no good answer.  What kind of library would be useful in the face of climate change?  How should librarians approach preservation in an age when the imminant collapse of civilization is a realistic possibility?

Monday, November 5, 2018

God is Going to Have to Forgive Me

Elizabeth Dias. “‘God is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out,” (Election 2018 The Voters),  New York Times, November 2, 2018, P. A13.

     I was pulled out of Smith College in 2015 when I told my parents that I was rethinking the legitimacy of anti-gay theology. I thought, “God is going to have to forgive me. I am not going to die in this culture war.” I was Republican like them. Before, I supported whatever my church told me about candidates and issues. I never questioned or read outside material on these subjects. I secretly started borrowing books from the library. I gave a communion message in 2016— it was, “Our God chooses to die the death of all these marginalized people. He dies like Matthew Shepard, like a kid at the hand of the state. He was a refugee.” My church reprimanded me for “abusing he pulpit.” Other members used it to openly stump for Trump and say hateful things about Muslims and L.G.B.T. citizens.


     I used to teach an online course on how to do library research. My students had to select a topic for a final project bibliography.  Occasionally I would get a student who tried to challenge me by picking an overtly religious topic like “the truth of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.”  They thought I’d tell them no and then they could complain about being persecuted by those godless liberals at the University
     But I always told them, yes, that’s a great topic. The only problem, I’d say, is it’s not focused. I advised them to imagine that they were writing a sermon. Perhaps they could focus on the meaning of some specific teaching of Jesus? Or on how Christian theology informs some particular moral issue? The students who proposed religious research were always surprised to find out that there is a vast body of scholarly literature about theology and the Bible.  They thought the people at their church were the only authority. 
  The 22 year old woman in the article describes growing up in a culture where disagreeing with church authority was actually dangerous.  She was pulled out of college for questioning a quasi-biblical teaching and shamed by other members who ignored her message of Christian compassion.  What does it mean that she used the library and  not the Internet to start questioning the politics of her church?  Perhaps in such an intellectually repressive environment her home didn’t have the Internet. Maybe she used the library because she didn’t want anyone looking over her shoulder during her secret reading. Or maybe the Internet just doesn’t work well for this kind of questioning because online information has a tendency to amplify what you already believe. In any case, the young woman in the interview says she is still a Christian but she has changed her party affiliation to Democrat. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Invisible Hand

Andrew Marantz, "Invisible Hand," (Talk of the Town), New Yorker, October 15, 2018, p.

Last Monday night, about fifty New Yorkers of diverse ages and nondiverse politics showed up at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the first in a series of “Midterm Explainers”—informal talks ahead of the November elections, followed by cheese and screw-top wine. The evening’s topic, according to a flyer, was “The invisible hand of the super PAC.” The explainer was Zephyr Teachout, who was identified as an anti-corruption activist and a “veteran candidate”—a polite way of saying that she ran for governor of New York, in 2014; for Congress, in 2016; and for state attorney general, this year, all without enduring the potentially corrupting effects of winning.


   Here is an example of a public library fostering civic engagement by hosting a political lecture series.  
   In the article, Teachout is attempting to give an information literacy talk about how to follow the money in politics. Her audience, according to the reporter anyway, is surprisingly unreceptive considering that they all showed up to hear her talk. When she tries to tell them how to use Facebook to uncover the source of funding behind political ads they say, "we don't use Facebook," and then claim never to watch political ads.  As Teachout keeps pointing out, it's not about them.  It's about the people who do get their political information from Facebook ads. 
     When she asks if anyone knows who their state senator is about 1/3 of the audience raises their hands. This is actually a much higher than the rate than I have ever observed, especially among young voters.  When I ask college undergraduates if they can name the politicians who represent them they can all identify the president; a few know who their congressman is; but only once did I have a student who could name the governor.  The State Legislature (the ones who can allocate finding and make rules that affect the State system of higher education) are a complete mystery to students.  
     I believe that this ignorance of State-level politics is because young people do not read local newspapers. In part the currant breakdown in American politics is due to too much emphasis  on national politics and not enough knowledge of state and local politics where individual values can have a far more direct influence. Despite overblown hopes, the Internet and citizen journalism have turned out to be inadequate substitutes for local news reporting.  
     In some places without local newspapers libraries are trying to fill the gaps, in some cases by actually publishing community newsletters. It's an imperfect solution. Libraries have an obligation to both-sideism that, as lazy journalists found while reporting on the 2016 elections,  leaves the gate ajar for inadvertently spreading deliberate disinformation and propaganda.  Also, unlike real reporters librarians can't leave work to report breaking news.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Well Read, Well Known

Concepcion De Leon, "Well Read, Well Known: Glory Edim's Well-Read Black Girl Community is Growing Beyond a Book Club," New York Times, Oct. 26, 2018, p. C15-

     She comes from a family of readers; her mother was a historian before emigrating to the United States and often took Edim and her younger brothers to the library, where they would stock up on books.  That's where she discovered Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
     "I remember my first book report on Maya Angelou. I had an A.P. English teacher really critique her and be like, 'She's not a good writer,'" Edim recalled, "He was looking at syntax, he was looking at grammar, he was looking at her completely different structure." But these weren't the elements that appealed to Edim.  She was drawn in by Angelou's descriptions of her relationship with her brother, which reminded Edim of her own, and said Angelou "changed my thinking about literature, who can write and whose voice is important."


     Many years after finding Maya Angelou in the library, Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a book club to read black women authors. If it had been up to her A.P. English teacher, though, she might never have discovered Angelou. In fact, the teacher's overt dislike of Angelou's writing demonstrates why diversity in collections is so important.These days there are MFA programs for people who want to be writers, in effect creating new rules about who can write and whose voice is important. Angelou never went to college. She made herself into a writer by using the language she heard in her community.

    Angelou's writing is notable for using patterns of African-American English, though she herself rejected the idea that Black vernacular (a.k.a. Ebonics) should be considered a separate language. Angelou saw language as a tool of power and believed that learning Standardized English was a way for Black people to get access to power.  Nonetheless, as Edim says, writers like Angelou change the rules of power by redefining who can be a writer.
     Librarians have a challenge to find up-and-coming writers who are outside of the approval-plan.  A few years ago I started hearing buzz about a young Somali-British poet named Warsan Shire. The humanities librarian refused to purchase her obscure books for the library collection, so I requested a purchase for my ownuse in order to sneak her books into the collection. Not long afterwords,  BeyoncĂ© used Shire's poetry in her album Lemonade.  We librarians like to talk about diversity, but we also need to pay attention to what diverse communities are reading and be ready to spend money on it.  In a way, it seems to bad that a well-read Black girl like Glory Edim is not a librarian.

Discovery Interrupted

Jeffrey Friedman, “Discovery, Interrupted: How World War I Delayed a Treatment for Diabetes and Derailed one Man’s Chance for Immortality," Harper’s, vol 337, no.2022, Nov. 2018, pp. 45-54.

My research begn as a browsing of letters and laboratory notes on the Rockefeller University archives, and later expanded to include study of the materials housed at Yale, Johns Hopikns, and the American Philosoophical Society in Philadelpia, as well as conversations with members of Kleiner’s family. I published an earlier consideration of the scientific aspects of Kleiner’s story in Nature Medicine, a medical journal, in 2010. 


     This description of the research process is given in a footnote.  Perhaps Friedman is used to writing for journals and couldn’t bear to leave out the citations for a popular magazine. Or maybe he just found digging around in the archives to be such an interesting and delightful passtime that he wanted to tell us about it.            
     The article is about an obscure researcher named Israel Kleiner who almost discovered a cure for diabetes (the people who eventually did won a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1923). Friedman writes, “I immediately wanted to know more about Kleiner and his story especially given my own interest in hormone research.”  
     The research problem— Kleiner was not at all famous. He worked alone in his lab. His few published journal articles, including one “masterpiece,” were written without co-authors. He later became a college administrator. What documentation of his life existed was in records from the places he had worked and in the memory of people who knew him. What Friedman discovered in the archives is a kind of bureaucratic tragedy. Even though Kleiner was on the verge of a major breakthrough, the director of the Rockefeller Institute fired him because he thought infectious disease research was more important than diabetes research. After all, in the era before antibiotics soldiers died from infections, not from diabetes.  (There may also have been anti-Semitism going on). Friedmam thinks the director lost sight of the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. He writes, “scientific inquiry is an arc of knowledge, a series of steps on a path toward a deeper understanding of the unknown, and the breakthroughs only come because of the body of knowledge that previous observations have built.”  Libraries store this body of knowledge in the form of scholarly journals. 
     All these years later, Friedman feels a sense of outrage on behalf of Kleiner. He writes, “I can say with certainty that under similar circumstances neither I nor most other ambitious scientist I know would have maintained Kleiner’s apparent sense of equanimity about his missed opportunity.” And yet it is still true that researchers can only do their work if they have funding and lab space.  No matter how objective science is, money is always political, and that means so is missing information in the scientific record. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Illibral Values

Kirn, Walter. Easy Chair: Illibral Values. Harper’s vol. 337, no 2019 (Aug. 2018). p5-7.

Paula was our town librarian. She used Ms. in front of her name and held opinions— on Nixon, the Vietnam War, and civil rights— that I’d heard on the news, from protest leaders and such, but hadn’t experienced up close.  Since the library was on the first floor of the town hall, an old wooden building with a bell on top and an air of venerable officialdom, I wondered whether she was endangering herself by sharing her views while on the job. To demonstrate my own courageous spirit and win her respect, I picked out books that struck me as controversial or sophisticated from the adult shelves, then plunked myself down to read them in an armchair that was visible from her desk. Though I was just eleven, I read Slaughterhouse Five and Future Shock this way. Sometimes we ended up talking about the books. Through gentle questioning, she would elicit from me opinions I wouldn’t have dared to share with others, such as my hope that humans would die out as punishment for harming whales and dolphins. [p. 5]


     I have a bit of a crush on Paula. She’s what I would like to be as a librarian. I especially love her willingness to discuss books with her callow young admirer.  

     I can remember doing this kind of reading when I was about eleven, but I didn't always rely on the library.  Slaughterhouse Five and Future Shock were on the bookshelves of my parents or my friends’ parents, as were the utterly fascinating Joy of Sex and Our Bodies Our Selves.  I don’t recall ever trying to discuss them with an adult. Even though I had a perfectly good library card, in Jr. High I loved Kurt Vonnegut so much that I spent my own money on paperback copies of his books so I could read and re-read them. I recently re-read Slaughterhouse Five because it was on my daughter’s high school reading list, and was pleased to find that it is still as good as ever. “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”  It gives you chills, doesn't it?