music and literature save lives

August 24, 2012

My friend, Julie Jung, designed a graduate course at Illinois State called “Rhetoric Saves Lives” (scroll down to ENG 590 Seminar in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, almost at the bottom on the right-hand side). From Julie’s course description: “Titled ‘Rhetoric Saves Lives,’ this seminar argues that scholarship in rhetoric can and does productively intervene in discourses that threaten the lives and livelihoods of beings on this planet.*” And the asterisk signals a note at the bottom of the course description — I’m including the note not only as an example of citation and gratitude but also as an example of Julie’s humor, which always cracks me up:

* I am grateful to my colleague Professor Angela Haas for arguing so persuasively that rhetoric does in fact save lives in response to my once saying that our work as rhetoricians isn’t like “brain surgery, because, you know, we don’t save lives or anything.” Accordingly, she inspired not only the title of this course, but also the very course itself.

As an undergraduate at an experimental college, I pestered my beloved literature professor with questions and comments such as the following: But how can literature make a difference? What does literature have to do with reality? Aren’t we destroying the literature by picking it apart? To which, my beloved literature professor answered, “How is my job any different from that of a plumber or a carpenter?”

Thirty-five years later and I’m reading a collection of contemporary Iranian literature with a group of alumni from that same college and with that same literature professor. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, edited by Nahid Mozaffari, offers a corrective to our mis-information and monolithic stereotypes about Iran. Literature is dangerous — on the back jacket of the collection, Dick Seaver of Arcade Publishing explains that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Department of the Treasury) warned the company that without a permit, the publisher would face consequences: a million-dollar fine and ten years in prison. What is the danger in this collection? Iranian writers describing their home, country, culture.

Reading Ahmad Mahmud’s excerpt from the first chapter of his novel, Scorched Earth, about the first days of Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, I kept thinking, ‘Why isn’t this required reading in high school, in college world lit. courses?’ The excerpt offers confetti pieces of the start of war and its inexorable normalcy.

This evening, I’ll attend a concert, the first of the 2012 Twickenham Fest three-concert series. I’ll listen to the world premiere Speaking for the Afghan Woman by William Harvey, an American composer, who lives in Kabul. Scroll down and read the Program Notes for a quick introduction to Afghani literature, music, and the feminist, Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). (There’s a fantastic exhibit on RAWA at Second Life.)

How do music and literature save lives? They combat ignorance. Listen to more about William Harvey’s work with his organization, Cultures in Harmony, or read this review of Shiva Rahbaran’s Iranian Writers Uncensored: Freedom, Democracy, and the Word in Contemporary Iran. Have at it. Go save some lives.


excellent review of Fifty Shades of Grey

July 29, 2012

Gail Dines’ review in Counterpunch, “Why Are Women Devouring Fifty Shades of Grey?” is excellent. Fair warning: it will make you weep at the popularity of the book.


June 19, 2012

anybody else got that old-time “Handmaid’s Tale” feeling?

February 16, 2012

Perhaps the creepiest book I have ever read is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in 1985, when it was first published. I was so creeped out because the novel offers a reality that is one shade away, palpably imaginable, almost present. The Evangelical right is dystopian fantasy in The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 and present reality in our government’s discussions of women’s autonomy in 2012. Or haven’t you been listening to the discussions on contraception?

I’m a bored blue-nosed gopher

February 4, 2012

“Well, I’ll be a blue-nosed gopher!” This phrase just popped into my head, and I remember being a kid, cracking myself up every time I said this to my sisters. I said it in an exaggerated country way, imitating the actor. No clue what the TV show was — so I google it. And there it is — Ollie, in the TV show Spin and Marty. I don’t even remember the show. But here’s the thing — do I really want to live in a world in which every question has an answer at the end of a click?

“Resisting Juan Crow in Alabama”

November 29, 2011

Resisting Juan Crow in Alabama” by Shaun Harkin and Nicole Colson is an excellent update on Alabama’s horrific anti-immigration law and the resistance it’s generated. Clear-headed and informative, this is a good read.

apocalyptic breathing

November 26, 2011

This phrase haunts me — it’s how I describe the pain of being conscious in this twenty-first century. Impossible to live this way, see this way each moment. But I think I’ve finally finished the poem that goes with that title:

apocalyptic breathing

one world
clogs my airway
each time I inhale

the yellow stomach of an albatross chick
plastic heap of bottle caps
part of a syringe, a toy soldier

the skin of a five-year-old son
tattoed with barbed wire

the noise of new missiles
the sweat between martyred limb
and patriotic prosthesis

dead oceans
local homicides
in one world
one throat

I breathe death
a pebbled piece of sin
too far from any gods
or new language
imagining us beyond war
and waste

words rattle
my airway thins
soon this tongue

detonates into inferno

my voice burns to ash
an orphaned pile near my left tonsil
one willowed breath scatters
cinder to its rightful vacuum

If I could end
with hope
I would

wrap myself
in a hope cape

hook my feet to the stars
and dream wrongside up

my ounce of batty vision

one brook-clear
conversation with a neighbor
unplanned unasked for
dispels cataclysm
arrests hiccups
jumpstarts this breath

then the next