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In August 2014, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was in Ferguson, Missouri covering the protests over the police shootings of Michael Brown. On August 13, his third day on assignment, Lowery was arrested at a McDonalds: a moment captured on a video that quickly went viral. The Missouri protests spread across the country, morphing into Black Lives Matter movement, and Lowery continued to follow the story. His experience and reporting are documented in his first book: “They Can’t Kill Us All.” While on this book tour, Lowery dropped by The Smart Set offices for an interview conducted by Byshera Williams and Richard Abowitz. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “Law & The Reporter”

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And the Lord God formed man . . . and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.
— Genesis 2:7

The world is beautiful before it is true.
— Gaston Bachelard

The theory of art developed in the Renaissance was intended to aid the artist in coming to terms with reality on an observational basis.
— Erwin Panofsky

Tell me! Is your universe awakening or going to sleep?
— John Hultberg

Cosmologists tell us that the temperature of space is two point seven Celsius above absolute zero. Certainly, many of Hultberg’s works, such as Twilight: Down The Drain and Dark Egypt, have icy light blue or very cold, dark blue skies. Demon Cloud, more demon angel than cloud, is certainly an exception with its infrared emissions glowing with the hot radiance of an unexplained fog of ions, or charged particles, over an accumulation of detritus. At right is a geometric plane with double circles, and at left is an easel-like speaker stand, both linked together by a single, cool, azure color. The demon cloud/angel, with its flurry of elegant brushstrokes that meld into the terrain, hovers over a landscape of tachist openings (and closings?) like dark kinetic energy escaping the gravitational field of earth. With his extraordinarily unique use of perspective, Hultberg expands his art into something more spatial, more astronomical, more cosmic. More… “The Art of John Hultberg”

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Chances are you have rarely seen a movie that draws substantially on the work of a major American poet. But this can change if you find a theater that is showing Paterson. This conditional, however, only doubles the unlikelihood. Even in greater New York, the movie had limited appearances. As Hollywood turns out innumerable examples of stupefying violence, inane plotting, and simplistic characterizations, the unlikelihood of poetry on the big screen outstrips even the remotest possibility. Yet somehow we find ourselves tenderly watching Jim Jarmusch’s subtle masterpiece. One of my fellow viewers remarked how odd that the movie didn’t contain a single car crash or large explosion. Yet what it had in plain sight was something like the spirit of William Carlos Williams, often referred to as WCW, the great modernist poet and doctor who spent most of his life as a general practitioner in the once-industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey.

The movie shows us how the spirit of WCW’s poetry is embodied in a bus driver, played with taste and control by Adam Driver. The low-key plot proceeds with an almost structuralist clarity. As Driver goes through his week from Monday to Sunday, we see him fall into a strict pattern. He awakens without the benefit of an alarm clock, each weekday beginning with a glancing look at his wristwatch; the hour is between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. He arises, pulling himself out a bed made supremely normal and comfortable by the presence of his beautiful wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). There on a chair next to the bed is his driver’s uniform, washed fresh and ironed each evening by his solicitous helpmate. A short breakfast (some featuring Cheerios), and then, carrying a tin lunch pail, he walks along leafy suburban streets. Walks that is, until he passes through an abandoned run of brick factories and warehouses — until he arrives at the bus depot. There, before he begins his route, which takes him through downtown Paterson, he spares a few moments to jot down poems in a notebook, the words appearing on the bottom of the screen in a clear, evenhanded script. More… “Poets in Paterson

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I was elated. By an act of fate, this year’s Associated Writing Programs’ (AWP) Conference was scheduled to be held in Washington, DC. I’d been attending the conference for over 20 years, but this would be the first time that the conference would be located in the eye of an American political storm of this magnitude. Participants from all 50 states would find themselves in Washington during Trump’s first 100 days.

When AWP organized its first conference in 1973, it became “an essential annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers.” Since then, the conference has grown in size to over 12,000 attendees. It runs four days with formal presentations scheduled from eight a.m. to eight p.m. and informal, off-site events at nearby restaurants and bars. Attending the conference is akin to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. How will you as a writer react when confronted with 12,000 others, many with national reputations? Believe me, you arrive at a dark place, unsullied by your own success. Still, others feel differently, “Being at AWP inspires you to do more,” the novelist Elizabeth L. Silver told me as we walked the book fair together. “It reminds you of what you aspire to be, no matter where you fall in the literary world.” More… “Reading, Writing, Chanting”

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The name Ganja Acid combines the recreational sloth of marijuana with the cosmic distortion of the 1960’s most iconic chemical without offering any hint that it belongs to a four-seat psychedelic bar. A friend suggested my wife Rebekah and I visit it while on our honeymoon in Osaka. Although I no longer smoked weed or dropped acid, I still loved the psychedelic: surreal books, occult verbiage, hippie satire, and trippy music that sounded like it was made on mushrooms. They were fun and reminded me of the risky excitement required to warp reality in order to examine it. The thing was, neither ganja nor acid were legal in Japan. While marijuana shops had popped up all over Portland where we lived, over there, even the smallest amount of weed brought first-time offenders a minimum of five years hard labor.

Japan’s 1948 Cannabis Control Act outlawed the commercial cultivation of hemp after WWII. Because modern pharmaceuticals have recreational uses, Japan also outlawed the unauthorized possession of many opioid painkillers like codeine and banned amphetamines like Adderall that are used to treat ADHD. It didn’t matter how commonly they were prescribed in other countries. It wasn’t a matter of clinical efficacy. The laws treated them with the same firm hand as heroin and cocaine. In June 2015, a high-level Toyota Motor Corp executive was arrested for having 57 oxycodone pills hidden in a package, mailed to her Tokyo hotel from the United States. Authorities held her for 20 days, and, after she resigned her high-profile post, and after she was widely discussed in the media, they let her off without formal charges. This is common in Japan, where the process is often the punishment for people who apologize and express remorse. Although oxycodone was legally prescribed there, the exec didn’t have a prescription and she didn’t get official governmental approval in advance.

More… “Ganja-Acid”

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In 1817, a former forester by the name of Karl Drais undertook an excursion on the paved road from Mannheim, Germany to Schwetzingen, just west of Heidelberg, and back. These eight miles took him just an hour (a stagecoach would have needed about four). Instead of merely walking, he drove himself or rode on a special vehicle he had constructed for himself: the Draisine, or dandy horse, made from wood. The local newspaper didn’t even take notice. We don’t know if Drais was aware of the importance of his vehicle, which we remember today as the prototype of the first bicycle — in other words, the first mechanical individual means of transportation without a horse.

The revolutionary aspect of the Draisine was the fact that it had two wheels in a line rather than next to each other. Drais acquired something like a patent in his home state of Baden, and later in Prussia and France. However, his invention was not yet a bike in the sense that we know today. It didn’t have pedals yet, and was propelled by the rider pushing on the ground with his or her feet. This direct connection with the ground gave riders the feeling of being somewhat in control, while the bike as we know it today requires more trust in the device. It was something the people back then simply didn’t have. More… “Revolution on Two Wheels”

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We enter Panem, home of The Hunger Games, a dystopian film and book franchise that centers on the oppression of the 12 mostly impoverished Districts controlled by the Capital. Every year, the Capital holds an event called The Reaping where they make each one of the Districts sacrifice two children to The Hunger Games. During the event, they are forced to kill one another until there is only one left standing. That last child is the “victor” and wins a year’s worth of food for their district. We enter during the 74th Hunger Games, where the focus is on a young, white teenage girl named Katniss. All but two of the 24 tributes are white.

Mainstream dystopian fiction focuses primarily on the white protagonist and white-dominated societies — The Hunger Games is no exception. This trend can be seen in both Divergent (which has a white, female lead) and The Maze Runner (which has a white, male lead). Dystopian literature is defined as a sub-genre most commonly used within speculative fiction and science fiction. It shows a fictional world that explores social and political structures of a world in peril. To live in a dystopia is to be a part of a world that is impoverished, living in squalor, and/or highly oppressed. Dystopian fiction is that which dramatizes what it is like to be a marginalized within a culture, a body, and a world. Which is why it is so shocking that, at the margins, every character is white. More… “The Reality of Rebellion”

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Sitting at yet another job interview for an NGO, the question arises again. After hearing it repeatedly over the past three months, I am prepared for it.

“But, what are you doing in India? What made you move here?”

The interviewer is curious, perhaps because she hasn’t come across many like me. We, the children of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), who want to live and work in their parents’ respective countries, are a rare breed.

“Honestly, I am here because I see a real need for education reform in this country, but also because I really love India.” The former, a statement that would help me land me the job. The latter, intended to satisfy curiosity.

The interviewer moves on to the next question, but after hearing the second part of my answer, most people press onwards.

“You love India? Compared to America?” they ask, as if it is unfathomable. More… “Going the Right Way”

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“Imagine no possessions,” John Lennon asked in a famous song. Then wisely added: “I wonder if you can.” I note that Lennon was driving a 19-feet-long Rolls Royce when he composed the song “Imagine.” In fact, he didn’t really drive it; he had a couple of chauffeurs available for that. The former Beatle spent his time in the back seat, where he had a double bed installed along with a television and refrigerator.

No, I don’t blame Lennon. He’s not the only person to take pride in ownership while imagining a property-free world he didn’t actually want to inhabit. Bernadette Peters summed up the pervasive attitude best in the Steve Martin film The Jerk, when she faces the prospect of going from wealth to poverty. “I don’t care about losing all the money,” she declares bravely. Then after a pause: “It’s losing all the stuff.” More… “Why Music Ownership Matters”

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I still remember the day I came to Turkey. While making a connection at London’s Heathrow Airport, I happened to glance at a newspaper headline announcing that a bomb in Izmir had killed several people. At the time I had no idea where Izmir was, nor why someone would choose to bomb it, but rather than taking it as an ominous message, I chose to downplay the significance of the event. I felt bad for the victims, but only in the abstract way that we all commiserate with things that do not directly affect us. Besides, I did not want to infect the optimism I felt at taking an academic job in Istanbul, where I had been asked to help found a literature department. I would engage in exactly this sort of hedging and deferral over the next ten years: overlooking bombs, tear gas, the senseless killing of youths during the Gezi Park uprising, the ousting of judges, and the government takeover of virtually every media outlet. But things finally reached a limit with the July 2016 coup d’état attempt by a faction within the Turkish military and the growing restrictions on academics and disturbing social demonstrations that followed in its wake.

I arrived during a relatively stable period in Turkey’s history, but the country has had more than its share of political, social, and economic upheavals throughout the 20th century, including three previous major coups. Being an expatriate in Turkey means sublimating doubts and anxieties over the rise of religious fundamentalism or the shrinking value of the Turkish Lira. I discovered that it is disturbingly easy to accept small changes like restrictions on alcohol sales or increasing government intervention and to think of larger looming problems, like the devastating earthquake that is slated to strike Istanbul or ISIS restoring the Caliphate, as vague possibilities that will never arrive. There is also a culture of postponement and acceptance in Turkey, buttressed by a native Turkish belief that “things will happen if God wills it” that makes it easier to dismiss the future in favor of the present. So I acknowledged disturbing possibilities, stored them somewhere in the back of my mind, and moved on. More… “After the Coup”