Recently by Richard Abowitz:

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James Forman Jr. is an academic who studies the criminal justice system, which is not unusual for a former clerk to a Supreme Court justice. But Forman also worked for years as a public defender in Washington, D. C. This gives him profound first-hand experience of the system that is less common among legal scholars. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman calls on both his experiences and the latest scholarship to tell a story that complicates our understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. While in Philadelphia earlier this month for a reading, Forman came by the offices of The Smart Set to discuss his book. A passionate critic of the system, despite the often depressing tale he tells, Forman comes across as an optimist who believes, even in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that we can continue with widespread criminal justice reform.

More… “Forman for Reform”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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This month marks the 40th anniversary of a month of shows by the Grateful Dead that are regarded with awe by their legions of fans. At the core is the night of May 8, 1977, when the band played Cornell University’s Barton Hall and delivered what has long been considered their greatest show. In 2011, the Library of Congress added the Cornell show to the National Recording Registry even though it hadn’t been officially released.

This being the Dead, all the May 1977 shows have been circulating in various unofficial ways for decades. There was even an official box set of some May 1977 shows. But, until now, the Cornell show itself had never seen an official release. A limited-edition box set was put out this month, including a recording of the show along with three others previously unreleased. What is revealed should surprise no one at this point: the Cornell show was nothing special. It was in fact a typical night for the band in this period: sounding no different from other shows, comprising a set list of songs that were the usual suspects from that tour. Yet, this is high praise, because in May 1977, no band was delivering anything like what the Dead were putting on stage. More… “The Rocking Dead”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Kay Redfield Jamison is the Dalio Family Professor of Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition to academic work including the standard textbook on manic depression, she is the author of An Unquiet Mind about her own struggles with the disorder. Her latest, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, applies her expertise to the life of one of the last century’s major poets. Offering new insights into his life, Jamison brings fresh energy to interpreting Lowell’s poems from “Skunk Hour” to his later poetry. This interview was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity.

More… “Keeping a Lowell Profile”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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How Fast Can You Run is the first novel from poet Harriet Levin Millan. Though a novel, it is based on a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Kuch became a child refugee, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, when his village was destroyed during the country’s civil war. But How Fast Can You Run is more than a survival story; it also preserves memories of Kuch’s early village life continuing onto his experiences getting his education in the United States. We spoke to Millan and Kuch about their collaboration on the book at Millan’s office at Drexel University where she teaches. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “How Fast Can You Write”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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On February 1, 2016, the anniversary of Langston Hughes’s 1902 birth, the poet achieved a 21st-century mark of distinction: his name trended on Twitter. Over at the music streaming service Spotify, 8,099 listeners in the past 30 days had played recordings of Hughes reciting his poetry. On YouTube, since being posted a little over a year ago, a reading Hughes did at UCLA shortly before his death had been played 12,226 times: amazing for an 85-minute, not-exactly-hi-fi, audio-only recording from 1967.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. As an African American icon Hughes is beloved, and as a writer Hughes has lodged his handful of poems permanently in the public mind. This has been true since 1921 when his first published poem, written when he was still a teenager, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” caused a sensation in black America. It remained true, as observed recently by W. Jason Miller, when Hughes’s poem from 1948, eventually known as “Dream Deferred,” was instrumental to the imagery and language of Martin Luther King’s 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” And Hughes’s centrality was affirmed yet again in 2004 when presidential candidate John Kerry made use of the 1938 poem “Let America be America Again.” All of this is to note that, along with Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, Hughes is arguably one of the few marquee names in American poetry.
More… “The Hughes Blues”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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In her latest novel, The Past, Tessa Hadley writes about four adult siblings who come to stay for a few days at their grandfather’s house in order to decide the future of this place that has meant so much to their past. Hadley first became known in this country for her short stories that regularly appear in the New Yorker. Hadley was reached by phone at her hotel before an appearance at Free Library of Philadelphia. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: When your novel was sent to me, all I knew about it was that it was called The Past, and I thought of course it was going to be a huge, mammoth work dealing with hundreds of years of histories and continents, something that’s worthy of such a huge title. Obviously the past is a huge subject in it, but it’s dealing with a tiny family. What made you put a title so broad on a subject so intensely focused?

TH: It took me ages to get that title. I was about two-thirds of the way through and I had about three or four working titles, all of which I was pretending to myself I was satisfied with, and suddenly it was just so obvious. I suppose what I really think is you’re right — there’s something funny about calling it The Past and then it’s this tiny little fragment of one family history in one country. But that huge great big billion-year past is made up of tiny little pieces, and the tiny little pieces, like that little family, the shards of individual pasts, actually capture in them bits of history, bits of historical change. In the novel, we feel the change between 1968, that moment when the great plates underlying our cultural and social life seemed to be shifting, and then the present, 40-odd years later, when, well, maybe one of the things one feels is that they haven’t shifted as much as everybody thought they were going to in 1968. I hope that always the individual story kind of opens onto the bigger history, if in a winding way. More… “A Thing of The Past

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman completes his two-volume biography (Frank: The Voice was volume one) of the man widely regarded as the great interpreter of American popular song. While Sinatra has already inspired a library of books, no one else has succeeded as well as Kaplan in teasing out the complicated relationship between the singer’s life and art. Reached by phone in New York, Kaplan was happy to discuss the results of his ten-year effort to document a public life that stretched across more than six decades. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: Reading Sinatra: The Chairman, a quote of Joni Mitchell’s about David Geffen kept springing into my head, which is: “He’d have to spend a lot less time being generous if he spent a little being fair.” Maybe in Sinatra’s case, the word “fair” should be changed to “sensitive to other people,” or “reasonable.” I don’t know what word you want to put there, but could you explain the relationship between his incredibly legendary generosity and the sort of difficulty he could have in treating people around him well? More… “Under Our Skin”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Orhan Pamuk is one of the world’s best-known novelists. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s fictions often focus on the lives, times, and people of his native Istanbul. His latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, was six years in the writing and tells of the life of one street vendor in the city. TSS editor Richard Abowitz reached Pamuk by phone in New York where he teaches at Columbia University.

TSS: The title of your new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, comes, of course, from a Wordsworth poem — a massive work, The Prelude — but I’m struck by the way you use it, because, you know, we think of Wordsworth as a poet that loved nature, and, while he was pre-industrial revolution, he wasn’t exactly a fan of what he saw coming. You use it, in your new book: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.” How did you think of applying Wordsworth to a city and as the title for your book? More… “5 Questions with Orhan Pamuk”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Novelist Joshua Cohen is interviewed at Bomb. In the interview conducted by Dan Duray, Cohen discusses some of the numbers behind Book of Numbers:

So let me just state for the record: There are an even number of paragraphs in every section of the book. There are an even number of sentences in every paragraph. It’s all about the evens. After all, the name of the company is Tetration. Hyper-4 …

Principal’s clauses are formed, and deformed, by Sanskrit prosody—which itself is a basis of binary notation. I counted words, I counted syllables. I drove myself crazy. All to ensure this flatness of affect. Or, more accurately, all to ensure a surface that was perfectly flat until the logic of the system threw a kink into it—until the logic destroyed what it had made—what it had made to be perfect, unimpeachable.

The result according to a New York Times review: “reads as if Philip Roth’s work were fired into David Foster Wallace’s inside the Hadron particle collider.”

Two things often said about James Salter who passed last week at 90 is that he was a writer’s writer and that his work did not sell well. Here is Vulture making More… “Joshua Cohen’s numbers, rest in peace James Salter, and more”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Just as the controversy over PEN America’s award to Charlie Hebdo recedes into the distance a new issue has erupted over at AWP concerning the placement of Vanessa Place on a subcommittee. A petition at Change.org opens:

“We find it inappropriate that Vanessa Place is among those who will decide which panels will take place at AWP Los Angeles. We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist.”

It did not take long for AWP to agree to the demand:

More… “Vanessa Place Vs. AWP, Woody Allen, and more”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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