Kevin Powers didn’t flinch when the novelist Thrity Umrigar asked him a pointed question—had he considered incorporating substantial Iraqi characters in his much-honored novel “The Yellow Birds”?
Power’s first book, an impressionist portrayal of combat and its consequences during the Iraq War, won an Anisfield-Wolf book prize this year for fiction. The National Book Award cited it as “an urgent, vital, beautiful novel that reminds us through its scrupulous honesty how rarely its anguished truths are told.”
Umrigar, a professor of creative writing at Case Western Reserve University best known for her novels “The Space Between Us” and “The World We Found,” politely asked if Powers had thought to write a story that “would give the Iraq people agency?”
Powers, 32, nodded vigorously, standing at a lectern on the Case campus, and said he’d weighed that question. “Because I’m telling this single soldier’s story, I wanted to be true to his perspective, his inability to understand the larger picture,” Powers said of his narrator, Private John Bartle. “I wanted to stay true to the distance, the chasm that exists, in an unformed young person, not capable of these interactions.”
Powers himself joined the U.S. Army the day after he turned 17, serving as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was deployed “outside the wire,” backing up infantry and cavalry in units trying to find Improvised Explosive Devices before they found their targets.
Thoughtful, soft-spoken and given to the “y’alls” of his Richmond, Virginia upbringing, Powers took 20 minutes to read the final chapter of “The Yellow Birds” to his Baker-Nord Center audience. It awakened in several veterans a desire to speak about the burdens they bury, and carry, from the killing they did and the dying they witnessed. The atmosphere was tense, and Powers listened long and intently. Three times he responded to statements from veterans with a quiet “absolutely.”
Occasionally, Powers said, someone will object. They will note that “War is hell” and assert there is nothing new to say. But, “it still feels necessary to me,” he said. “Until we can say, ‘War was hell,’ then somebody needs to keep saying it. We shouldn’t have the excuse that we didn’t know how bad it was.”
The writer assured his listeners that the specifics of “The Yellow Birds” “are very different from my own experience,” but acknowledged that he drew upon his own guilt and shame and attempts to make sense of his memories in crafting the novel.
“I spent four years writing it, more or less, in isolation,” he said. “I didn’t know if anyone would publish it or read it.” He often wrote until 3 a.m., persisting, he said, because writing was the way he makes sense of the world.
“I can’t separate reading and writing,” he said. “If I wasn’t a reader, I wouldn’t be a writer. I simply have never found a better way of dealing with the confusion I feel when confronted with the world.”
Powers didn’t keep a journal as a soldier, saying he didn’t have the stamina, or the mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. About two years ago, a friend showed him one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
Next April 1, Powers will publish his first collection of poetry, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” And he has begun work on a second novel, set in hometown Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the ashes of the Civil War.
He notes, “I will probably always be interested in the way that violence affects communities, how people respond to those sorts of situations and how people put a life together when not all the pieces are intact.”
Eugene Gloria says that he is fascinated by failure. He was quick to describe a particular poem or two as failed, and even his book, “My Favorite Warlord,” which won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as a failure of his original idea to describe 1967.
“I ran out of ideas for 1967, became bored,” Gloria told listeners at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. “I ran out of gas, even though I was obsessed by it. The idea of failure is fascinating to me.”
And yet, 1967 is a fulcrum in “My Favorite Warlord” – the year his family arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines, the year his future wife was born in Detroit, the year that Wole Soyinka is “being hauled to jail/on trumped-up charges” as Gloria writes in “Allegory of the Laundromat.” He told the MOCA audience that he was thinking about soul music as he wrote it.
Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., praised this very poem as he introduced Gloria to the sold-out audience gathered at the Ohio Theatre Sept. 12 for the Anisfield-Wolf awards ceremony:
“What I find so resonant in all of these poems is the idea of multiplicity, that we possess many identities stemming from the many diverse forces that have shaped us,” Gates said. “In Gloria’s case, he is shaped by a Filipino background, though education among the nuns in a Catholic school, to coming of age in the same neighborhood in which he found ‘Janis Joplin shoring up supplies/from our corner Chinese grocer.’”
Gloria, 56, has taught for 13 years at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He read his poem, “Here, On Earth” for both the crowd at MOCA and the throng at the Ohio Theatre. He told his listeners that it captures his relationship to Indianapolis. The final two stanzas:
Here, on earth we are curtained by rain.
A subset in the far corners floating
toward the center. We are an island
in landlocked America. We are
Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese.
We are, all of us, post exotics.
At MOCA, Gloria followed a reading from Kazim Ali, an Oberlin College professor who started with his poem “Fairytale.” It concludes, “All the sacred words/are like birds wheeling in the sky./Who knows where they go?” The political nature of Ali’s reading inspired Gloria to start with “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet.” He called it “one of the oddball poems in my collection; it failed as a political poem.”
And yet “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet” is many reader’s introduction to Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death on the eve of his wedding by Detroit auto-workers enraged at the ascendancy of Japanese cars in the U.S. market. “The dialectics of fists and ball bats/turned his wedding party into a funeral” Gloria writes.
When Ali and Gloria perched on tall stools together at MOCA, Ali spoke about the context for two of his newest poems, which focus on Bradley Manning, convicted in July for violating the U.S. Espionage Act.
“We are political,” Ali said. “We can notice it or not notice it.”
“Amen to that brother,” Gloria responded. “We try to avoid being cliché. The struggle is taking an overt political position in an art that calls so much attention to language can be problematic. But like Kazim says, we are all political.”
The men riffed on Shelley’s famous maxim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” suggesting that the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” may well be the secret police.
Before he returned to Indiana, Gloria said, “The idea of identity is always going to be a subject. I have no choice. Identity is so multi-layered and I am obsessed.”
In at least one way, Joe Brewster sounds like most fathers.
“I want my son to have the best education possible,” he says in the opening scene of this clip from “American Promise,” a short film that he and his wife Michelle Stephenson created to detail their son’s experiences at an elite Manhattan prep school.
Idris Brewster, a 5-year-old African-American boy from Brooklyn, would be one of few minority students at the Dalton School, where 2013 tuition is more than $40,000 per year. His parents switched on the camera once he was admitted. The impulse grew into an attempt to capture his entire K-12 educational career on film.
“We were embarking on this journey and having the camera around became a tool to process our journey,” Stephenson says.
In this extended trailer, viewers see that journey through Idris’ eyes: a school suspension he experiences as unfair, the pressure his parents apply that he outperform his peers, a cab that would pick him up, but not his friends.
Both parents are accomplished—Brewster attended Harvard and trained as a psychiatrist before becoming a filmmaker; Stephenson, daughter of immigrants, graduated from Columbia Law School. They make it clear that they have high expectations for their son and want him to be able to navigate being a black man in America.
“American Promise” won the Special Jury award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will air on PBS in 2014. For more on “American Promise,” visit americanpromise.org.
Every afternoon, I wait in my children’s grade school library with the other parents for pick-up. The principal reads off students’ names over the loudspeaker, the signal that they are dismissed and can meet us in the library.
Every day, without fail, the principal stumbles over Ayanna, my six-year-old daughter’s name. She tries “Ah-yanna,” “I-yanna,” “E-yanna”—every pronunciation except the correct one. (It’s “A-yahn-na,” in case you’re wondering.)
As a black mother, I felt pressure—mostly from well-meaning relatives—to give my daughter a racially ambiguous name, one that was simple and easy to pronounce. Too many vowels or even one apostrophe meant trouble. I chose “Ayanna” after reading it in an Eric Jerome Dickey novel and loving that it means “beautiful flower” in Hebrew.
“The father of my child recently told me of his wish to name our son Keion, after his childhood best friend. I was nothing short of horrified. In my opinion, ‘Keion’ is identified as a ‘black’ name. My two best friends politely asked, in unison, ‘Don’t you think it sounds too ethnic?’ And I cannot forget my brother’s blunt, stinging remark, ‘Hell, no … way too ghetto. You guys need to revisit the baby books.’”
So Drayton Googles the name to learn more about its provenance and is confronted instead with mug shots of various “Keions.”
“Contemplating baby Keion led me straight to a a black mother’s biggest fear, mingling inside me along with the common aches and pains of motherhood,” she writes. “My unborn son, a seven-month old fetus, could have all the world’s unspoken markings of a criminal — the wrong skin color and the wrong name.”
While I was conscious about how freighted a name can be, our choices for our daughter and son Thomas were personal, not fearful. We gave them names that sounded strong, had meaning for our family, and that would convey some idea of the hopes we held for them. Being worried that an employer will toss their resume after seeing a “black” name is a concern – one that sociologists continue to investigate. But should such caution be determinative? Let us know your thoughts.
Several years ago, Clevelander Anne Trubek attended the Anisfield-Wolf ceremony with an interest in hearing that year’s crop of winners speak. As she left, she realized that she had been exposed to one of Cleveland’s best kept cultural secrets.
The writer-in-residence at Oberlin College, author and literary critic tucked her experience in her back pocket and went on to co-edit Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. The idea was to share Cleveland stories that only Clevelanders could tell. After a huge response, Trubek’s format morphed into another repository for Cleveland stories — Belt magazine.
“I want Belt to tell some of the many amazing Cleveland stories that have not yet been told,” she said. “The Anisfield-Wolf Awards is one example. I decided, sometime in May, that it would be the first story.”
Trubek assigned the story to Kent State journalism professor Jacqueline Marino, who reported extensively to uncover the award’s history and provide a glimpse into the life of Edith Anisfield-Wolf. Marino said she was surprised how low-profile the woman remains, exactly 50 years after she died.
“I had never heard of the award,” Marino said. “But once I read about the winners, the jury, and especially founder Edith Anisfield-Wolf—this intriguing character from Cleveland’s history that no one seems to know much about—I was enthralled. She and her father contributed so much to Cleveland.”
Tonight, our spotlight shined on 10-year-old Gwyneth Wilde, a fifth-grader at the Falcon Academy of Creative Arts in Mogadore. Gwyneth will recite a poem she wrote last year in a workshop sponsored by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. This superb program, which brings poetry to communities throughout Northeast Ohio, is led by Nicole Robinson, who accompanied Gwyneth, along with Gwyneth’s parents, Laura and Brian Wilde.
Take a minute to read her poem, “Flinging off the Curved Bow” and leave a comment for Gwyneth. We’ll make sure she sees it.
Three times a week, a group of strangers gathers in the basement of an independent New York City bookstore.
Their purpose? The volunteers—sometimes including tourists—pack more than 200 books a month, shipping them to prisons in 41 states. They belong to a collective called Books Through Bars, which provides reading material to inmates at their request.
Begun in Philadelphia roughly three decades ago, the collective sprouted chapters across the country, all operating on the same model: Books are donated to a partnering bookstore and volunteers match donations with requests.
ABC No Rio, an artist’s community center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, started the work in 1996. Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars, is a founding member.
Prison reformers have long advocated more access to books for inmates. Research indicates that books and education ease the transition back into society, and reduce recidivism rates.
Odette, a volunteer with the Manhattan program, said that inmates are thankful such an organization exists. (She asked that her last name be omitted.) “In some cases, people may be cut off from family and friends, either due to solitary confinement or some other reason,” she said, “and we are one of the only forms of positive human contact they receive.”
The most requested items (and hardest to solicit donations for) are English- and Spanish-language dictionaries. Close behind are history books and titles on navigating the oft-confusing social services system.
Photographer and artist Carrie Mae Weems paused in front of more than 600 rapt listeners in late August to take a question from a young woman about her series called “Ain’t Jokin,” excerpted in the current retrospective of her work at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Weems had shown her Cleveland audience a slide of a black woman looking into a mirror asking who is the fairest of them all. The cutting retort in all capital letters: “Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!” Weems then repeated aloud another question posed in the 1988 “Ain’t Jokin” series: “What are the three things you can’t give a black person? Answer: a black eye, a fat lip and a job.”
Some in the audience gasped. “Humor has become a very important place for me to land,” Weems said evenly.
“Your joke series can be very jarring,” the young questioner began.
“It is really jarring,” Weems echoed her. “Nothing human is alien to me,” she continued, quoting the ancient Roman dramatist Terence. “I don’t think you need to be very, very knowledgeable to engage with art. Art changes lives all the time.”
It certainly has illuminated Weems, who said she was aware, as a seven-year-old in Portland, Oregon, that she wanted to create art. With her father’s blessing, she left home at 16 to try to make her way, landing as a performer in Anna Halprin’s progressive Dancer’s Workshop in San Francisco. It was 1969.
“A boyfriend, who was actually a jerk, gave me a camera on my 18th birthday,” Weems said. “I picked it up and I immediately had a sense of what I wanted to do.”
What she has accomplished has placed Weems, 60, among the most celebrated contemporary American artists. Her photographs and
accompanying text explore justice and gender and race through bodies, often constructed tableaus, which reverberate with gestures toward history and culture.
So, for instance, she takes up a desegregation protest in Boston, placing documentary video of angry whites in juxtaposition with counterpart blacks, slows the footage and sets it to stunningly mournful music. The result mesmerizes and haunts, making the viewer look again at what he or she assumes to know.
The exhibit, which was first shown at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, is free and open to the Cleveland Museum of Art public through September 29. It collects more than 125 photographs, videos, and sound installations from the last 30 years of Weems’ work. One of the most famous and moving is “Kitchen Table,” a powerful black-and-white series completed in 1990 in which Weems explores relationships between women and men, and women and women.
The photos are hung alongside 14 panels of text that narrate a story of a 38-year-old woman with a “bodacious manner, varied talents, hard laughter, multiple opinions.” Weems used herself as a model.
“Making ‘Kitchen Table” was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” Weems told her Cleveland audience. “It was coming, it was gushing, it flows and it went where it needed to go.” She looked out at Robert P. Madison, 90, a pioneering Cleveland architect. “I know Mr. Madison knows what I am talking about.”
Weems’ smile, her frankness, her erudition and her rich, alto voice demonstrated a gift for intimacy—a hallmark of her art. Weems said she believed that avoiding what makes us uncomfortable keeps us apart.
And then her smile broadens with candor. “I only like people to a certain extent,” she added, “because usually they are a pain in the ass.”