Wednesday, March 18, 2009

If we have to wear green on the 17th...

...then let it be cinematically green!

Great Expectations

A Little Princess

(And check out the eyes in the banner, from Y tu mamá también, which I actually screened tonight to my class!)

Celebrating the two filmmakers I most associate with the color green: director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Not even remotely Irish, just like me!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Going against Amazon

Truth be told, I love Amazon. Not only do I have friends who work there (hi, Ted!), but it is an impressive space where one can find almost anything. I have found all sorts of obscure movies, CDs and books, many from used bookstores and bought at wonderful discounts. (Hour of the Assassin for 85 cents plus shipping! Woohoo!!) As a soon-to-be-published author myself, I will also admit that it has given me a minor kick to find my own book up there already available for pre-order, even as I am frantically in the midst of doing the index as I type this. (Although I am not actually attending my 20th high school reunion in a month, somehow the Amazon listing legitimizes my work for all my former classmates who otherwise could care less about academia.)

And then, on the blogroll to the right, I saw this: "Saving Shaman Drum."

Oh no, I thought. Not Shaman Drum.

The fact that Shaman Drum might be on its last legs probably should not be a surprise to me, but it fills me with great sorrow. I arrived in Ann Arbor right around the time that they moved into their current space on State Street, and I attended the opening party because it was a cool thing for a first-year graduate student in the humanities to do. I remember wandering around that party with my old friend Jack Chen (now atUCLA, apparently) as he made faces at a baby facing backwards in a backpack. I also got a phone call two days afterwards with a message that I had won a door prize: a new dictionary. I don't need a new dictionary, I have a perfectly good old one, I thought, and went in intending to ask to trade in the dictionary for perhaps a gift certificate so that I might be able to buy more textbooks. That is, until they handed me the gigantic, lovely American Heritage Dictionary, which immediately and inexplicably made me drool, causing me to say "thank you" and head for the door with a book that sits on the main floor of my house and still gets used regularly.

That book-love is what makes news of Shaman Drum's near-passing so sad -- and, as I read with horror, I realized that the reason it is probably failing is something I currently practice at my own institution: making my reading lists available to students early so that they can purchase them online. In my case, the reasoning is simply because the only option for our students at AU is the soul-less Follett bookstore which routinely has horrible service, never orders a sufficient amount of books and prices everything way over the list price. I have a number of saved e-mails where I tried to get someone to contact me about a book I had ordered that I was assured would come in, which never came in at all. This set my whole syllabus for that semester in a tailspin. I have not forgiven them for that. As such, I have actually recommended to students that they not buy at the bookstore, that they take the search into their own hands.

In part, however, my reasoning behind this was simply because our own university bookstore has a monopoly on the situation; at Michigan, I had the option of choosing between two more mainstream stores, or this little local one. I opted for the latter and loved it. At Dartmouth and UCSC, there were also other grass-roots oriented textbook-stores that successfully cut into the monopoly stores with better service and prices; in the case of the former, Wheelock Books, I was actually one of the first employees when they opened in the year after I graduated. I always wished I had another option at AU, but perhaps the large nature of Washington couldn't support that.

Shaman Drum, however, was much more than a textbook experience for me: they really do have an amazing commitment to the humanities and cultural studies in general, and I spent hours as a graduate student poring over their shelves for stuff that I should probably read. Given that my parents still live in Ann Arbor, I have actually gone there now that I am much older and done something similar (although doing it with a two- or three-year-old in tow is less of an idyllic experience, since he wants to visit a different section from the one I want to go to).

I miss Shaman Drum and it pains me that they might go. That said, I am now actively considering joining their Great Lakes Literary Arts Center solely to help them out -- and if there is a book I need, I may even bypass my own local bookstore (that would be Politics and Prose) to have them ship from Ann Arbor, if it will help them out. I certainly hope they stay alive, as that store helped shape me into the academic that I am in many ways. They deserve the support.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The questions only get tougher

To his parents, after seeing the WAMU radio tower, "Why does the radio come over in waves? How does it get to our radio?"

To his mother, on the metro ride into work: "Mama, where does the sidewalk end?"

And, in a moment I'm not sure I necessarily want repeated, to his female babysitter lying next to him in bed after they have played for a few hours: "What's your name?"

Sunday, March 01, 2009

I am turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding

Yes, well, I dare anyone to say the above isn't true.

But that's not the reason I'm posting it here. It also happens to be a line from Walt Whitman's massive poem "Song of Myself." Despite the fact that I was an English major in college, have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and currently teach literature at a university, I had never read Whitman's poem. This is a major oversight, one that I cannot even justify by my emphasis in Latin American literature -- for I knew that José Martí's "Our América" is a response in the tradition of Whitman. I cannot even justify this as an oversight on the film front. After all, upon coming back to the United States for college, several of my friends wrote to me back in Lima that I had to see this movie which was all about me; when I went to see it, I discovered that ol' W.W. lorded over the English classroom like a spectre, sounding his "barbaric yawp" like the "sweaty toothed madman" that he is.

In any case, the oversight has been corrected in a most wonderful way.

On Friday, my colleague Linda Voris hosted a one-time public reading of "Song of Myself." It was possible to say that she decided to do this "just becuase," but she explained at the outset that this whole endeavor was inspired on Obama's inauguration day and the fervor his election alone generated. Each participant selected one of the 52 sections of the poem.

My colleague Katherine (who, mind you, we only just discovered was also an English major at Dartmouth at the same time I was!) threw down the gauntlet when she announced her choice, lamenting that "I would love to do #24, but I think that one should be read by someone manly." Naturally, I took this as a challenge; naturally (and blindly, really), I chose that selection.

I would suggest trying to read it out loud for yourself to see if you get the same results. I only read it once to myself the night before while watching ER, and discovered I really could not read it any other way with with a low, gravelly voice. It was all about sensuality, the corporeal -- and it was really fun to read:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whateve I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles and all the creeds.

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,
Transluscent mould of me it shall be you!
Shaded ledges and rests it shall be you!
Firm masculine colter it shall be you!
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you!
You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Breat that presses against other breasts it shall be you!

I mean, really. You don't get better than this. No wonder why I am a Unitarian. I even got to do an encore when a couple people didn't show up and I got to pinch-hit with #42 as well. This particular section got a big laugh:

I know perfectly well my own egotism,
Know my omniverous lines and must not write any less,
And must fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

The entire reading was really a magical experience, one I haven't had with poetry for a long time. All the different voices -- men, women, all with different accents and inflections -- made for a really exciting evening, one that finished in three hours, which was much shorter than I imagined. I wonder if it is a common occurrence to read Whitman like this -- or whether any other poets merit such a reading. Certainly, I'm using a bookstore gift certificate that has been burning a hole in my jacket pocket to buy some Whitman before I lose all this feeling.

And as for my section? Let me put it this way: three students came up to me afterwards to tell me that they were going to have a hard time coming to my class again next week; a fourth said he now never plans to miss any of my classes again.