Tolstoy in Florida

Last night we saw Ana en el trópico [Anna in the Tropics], a Spanish version of the play which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. The production was sentimental in the best sense: feelingly written and acted, with some soaringly lyrical monologues. I can't write a knowledgeable review, because I didn't understand all of what was said -- ninety percent, but not everything. (My wife can recommend the simultaneous English translation.) We enjoyed ourselves quite a bit; the story enacted parallels between life and literature (the title refers to Anna Karenina, one of the "love stories" read to sultry effect by a new lector in a cigar factory) which are not as directly or emotionally made by other contemporary works. (Depending, of course, on what you think of Reading Lolita in Tehran.)

The Repertorio Español is housed in a small, homey building on 27th Street between 3rd and Lexington. I couldn't help but draw some parallels and contrasts between it and the Folksbine, New York's Yiddish theater.

The most whopping difference, of course, is that the Repertorio is clearly still the theater of a large, Spanish-speaking immigrant population, or at least a population that understands Spanish on the stage and needs the language on ticket stubs, programs and the like. The Folksbine does have some Yiddish speakers and "understanders" at its performances, but never more than a few dozen, and some of the actors themselves are not notable for their proficiency. (I have a friend, who's participating in a reading there, who says that when she tries to speak Yiddish to the rest of the cast she gets blank looks from most of them.) I appreciate the Folksbine and I think Yiddish theater is important, if only to maintain some modicum of cultural self-respect. (I don't think it does anything to "keep Yiddish alive" [i.e. maintain the spoken language], but that's another story.) I do think that a publicly-supported institution that functions as a sort of Yiddish cultural ambassador has a responsibility to include more Yiddish in its organizational apparatus: programs in Yiddish and the like. But that's the ideologue talking.

The other similarity, based on this one data point, is that the plays I've seen at the Folksbine and this play at the Repertorio had in common a felicitous mix of crowd-pleasing music-sex-and-violence with some more lyric stuff for those of a literary bent.


Speaking of Spanish, I had an interesting conversation today at lunch with Mercedes Cebrián, a freelancer for La Vanguardia who's writing a piece on New York Yiddish culture. Her blog, Gachas at Tiffany's, is written in a slangy good humor which is fun to read, though (again!) I don't understand every word. ("Gachas" is apparently a homestyle porridge, Spanish kasha, if you like.) Apparently she's going to send me a copy of her book of short stories and poetry [scroll down to the bottom of the page for the review, in Spanish]. I don't understand why it's not posted on her blog for easy purchase . . .

In La Vanguardia's culture supplement for September 22nd, which Mercedes gave me, there's a long article by a Manuel Francisco Reina, a Spanish poet who's about my age, entitled "Poetas en Nueva York" (Poets in New York). It shows how ignorant I am of the New York poetry scene that his thumbnail classifications come as news to me. Francisco Reina writes, somewhat breathlessly, that New York "continues to be the modern Alexandria of arts and letters, the siren that seduces poets on both sides of the Atlantic." (I guess we should hire the babysitter more often so I can go out and get seduced.) He continues: "In contrast to the theoretical impoverishment of European poetry, ethical and aesthetic debate in New York is in enviable health." Two basic currents, say the author, are coexisting and merging in this seductive, sirenic Alexandria of ours.

On the one hand: the new formalists, also called the Missing Measures after the title of a book by the critic and poet Timothy Steele. "The new formalists have a certain Victorian air. . . .Though they are the object of scorn, the fruits of their labor are worthy of praise." Along with Steele, Francisco Reina includes in this group the poet-critics Frederick Turner, Brad Leithauser, and Wade Newman. Its most oustanding poets are, he says, Dana Gioia, Annie Finch, Rhina Espaillat, Honor Moore, and Nikki Giovanni.

[Come to think of it, I'm not sure I agree with the classification of all these very different poets in the same group. No, I'm definitely sure I don't agree with it. But I find the overview useful, and think you might too, so I'm blogging it.]

In the other corner, according to the author of the article, the "identity poets," proceeding from the loins of Allen Ginsberg. To quote him at length:

At first glance it's quite evident that, over against the martial order of
neo-formalism, identity poetics purifies the distinct identities of New Yorkers
as if poetry were to be converted into the pulse or blood of the city, as if it
were an independent nation of lyric [. . .]

Robert Duncan has become the father of this movement and an example of a dialogue of supposedly contrary currents. In addition, he paved the way for other trends, such as "ethnic poetry," when he wrote at the end of the sixties: "To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are. " With this proposal, Duncan was decades ahead of what was yet to come.

To repeat: I don't agree with Francisco Reina's dichotomy. I don't think that formalists and identity poets productively carve up, much less exhaust the space of New York poetry. But, like I said, it's useful to see what an outsider thinks. And such classifications serve as a good excuse to think about where I place myself on the spectrum.

(The article also includes an informative section on the Spanish poetry scene in Nueva York, but I don't have time to get into that right now.)

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