COMMENTS. Robert Roth

Kaytan brother  Robert niwara:

It is part of three part series: Inscriptions, Blurbs, Comments.
Here’s the link to the first two. They appeared in HPN #5

COMMENTS

Que la abismal sucesion de coyunturas polarizantes ha  producido en los medios en linea comentarios que van desde uno que otro acierto hasta posiciones absurdas, agresivas y deshumanizantes, es tal vez materia de una sociolinguistica virtual. Pero vale la distancia y leer la contribucion del Brother Robert respecto a sus comentarios en el NY TIMES, que navega con bandera de liberal, pero es mas bien super conservador.  Siempre  aprendo del Brother, de su honestidad radical. Por mi parte, cuando me canso del apasionamiento y la ignorancia en torno a la politica peruana, me refugio leyendo los comentarios de futbol en The Guardian. Go figure.

Comments

By

Robert Roth

Comment section (NY Times on-line).

Semi-liberated territory or confined free speech zone?

 

The comment section is considerably more liberal than the rest of the paper. The commenters considerably less hidebound than the columnists. There are also a few radical commenters who bring incredible passion, insight, information, humor and a pointed colorful liveliness to their comments. They help bring clarity to issues and help frame the news in ways that allow me to get a better grasp on hidden social and political currents. There is just a smattering of conservative or even reactionary commenters. Commenters are a source of free labor that dramatically improves the quality of the Times.

 

Some of the commenters have developed strong followings. For a long while I would maybe read a headline and skim a column and go quickly to the comment section. I felt the vitality there that didn’t exist elsewhere in the paper.   If you just read the comment sections you would think that Bernie Sanders had a lock on the election. With maybe Jill Stein making a challenge from the left.

 

One commenter, Carl Hultberg, wrote:

At least here in the comments sections we interact like real people in an open meeting.

 

For me I have been writing comments with increasing frequency. Most get in. The experience in general though is an unpleasant one. I continually fall back to my own particular grab bag of truisms. I start to hate what I am writing. It is compulsive; I keep repeating myself. A quick fix. An unsatisfying fix towards no end. My own ignorance often revealed.

 

Writing comments pulls me away from the writing I want to be doing. It doesn’t take much. Watch TV, call someone, take a walk, read an email, take a bath. Even as I was writing these lines I went back to the online Times. Started writing a couple of comments. And deleted them rather than send them. Something I am starting to do more often. That way at least I don’t keep checking them. Then a bit later (this is almost in real time) I wrote a new one and sent it.

 

After I send in a comment, I keep checking my emails to see if it got in (The Times sends you a link if it gets in). If it does get in I keep checking again to see how many “recommends” I’ve gotten. I keep doing this during the day.   Also I check to see if anyone replied to what I wrote. And then I look to see if there are replies to the replies. I might even reply myself. Sometimes a comment gets in days after you sent it. Which means far fewer people will see it. This is all very demoralizing. I wish I could say I am being humorous or even light hearted about it. I’m not exactly solemn about it either. But in very subtle ways cumulatively it has done me no good. In fact my writing this piece is an attempt to disengage from compulsive comment writing.

 

My first comment was about the police assault on the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Thought I had written the final word on Michael Bloomberg, a comment so searing and on target (it was one of thousands) that he would never fully recover from it.

 

I have written a few that I like very much. Most are pretty okay. Adding my voice to some kind of collective humanistic, at times radical, consciousness that often appears in the various comment sections of the Times. My comments are basically repetitive. In addition to being repetitive, they rarely sparkle. They just sort of hang there. If I have a little contented smile on my face, I know the comment is almost worthless. Irony is also something to be avoided. It is very easy for people to misunderstand. And since so many crazy and destructive ideas are out there in the world, it can actually feel to some people that you are being serious. Once I made an ironic comment that turned out okay. One commenter politely corrected something I said. Another responded that I was being ironic and that I knew exactly what I was saying. Which underscored my point in a nice way. But on balance it is something I avoid doing.

 

Once in a while, thankfully only very rarely, I have written a comment that I never should have sent. Usually it’s something I am iffy about to begin with, knowing that there is some real flaw in how I said it. I am too lazy to spend the time fixing it up and send it anyway hoping no one will notice. Feel lousy and embarrassed when those comments get in. Feel even worse when I actually don’t like what I had said, not just how I said it. Fortunately I have enough awareness for that to hardly ever happen.

 

The Times of course chooses which comments to include. Still there are thousands of comments that appear there daily. Many are quite good. A few are more than good. More troubling is the need to tame the democratic feel of the section by creating hierarchies within it. Some people are considered serious enough, or safe enough, to have a green check mark indicating that they have an almost complete green light to get published. Then there is the NYT PICKS, accompanied by a gold Times icon, that indicates that the screeners think a particular comment is among the most worthy. Then there are Readers’ Picks which indicate the number of “recommends” you have received. The one that feels the most pernicious is “Best Comment of the Week.”   At least “recommends” and “replies” give voice to the readership and indicate something more than institutional control over response.

 

On rare occasions I’ve gotten a very large number of recommends. Each time you check, the number has jumped another twenty or thirty or forty. You keep climbing on the leaderboard. Mostly though it might be 2 or 4 or 5 or 17 or 35. To get 4 or 5 for a way out comment that somehow slipped through the screeners is incredibly gratifying. “Four people agree with me on that. No shit.”

One thing I’ve noticed is that even though there is usually just a smattering of conservative or even reactionary commenters, there are times when the comment section is flooded with reactionary fury. The three things most likely incite this fury are:

  1. Any defense of rent control or rent stabilization
    2. Any defense of the rights and well being of undocumented immigrants
    3. Even the mildest criticism of the delicate white psyche

 

*

Swearing myself off from commenting, I still write them. Though less often, but still compulsively when I do. Not a great feeling because you find yourself inside the very confined givens of the pieces you are commenting on. Time bound, content bound. The foreground issues are fast moving. Constantly changing, yet basically remaining the same.

A few years ago I visited close friends in Copenhagen. I decided I should take a break from watching the news. For three or four days this was possible. Until one of my friends turned on CNN. The streets were filled with rage. Black people, some white people, marching and chanting. Masses of people finally out in the streets protesting the police killing of Eric Garner.   But no, it was Michael Brown’s death, not Eric Garner’s that the protest was about. It wasn’t Staten Island, it was Ferguson–a place I had never heard of before.

That was immediately followed by a story of refugees fleeing somewhere. The color of the people, the language they spoke was different than those I had seen on the news just a few days before. The look on their faces, their exhaustion, the way they walked was exactly the same. As was the self-assured voice of the anchor, who was talking with total authority about something he knew nothing about until twenty minutes before. I realized if I had turned on the TV 50 years ago the same two stories would very likely have been there. And if there had been a comment section in a newspaper the range of opinion and the actual opinions themselves, including my own, would not be all that different.

 

*

 

 

Short little outbursts. Short political essays. That is the limit of Maxwell’s work. A year of thought into thirty words, maybe three hundred, maybe twelve hundred. And the words definitely need an easily recognizable context to give them any sort of meaning. For by themselves they do not create a world. He can­not “invent” a world. In such a way is his imagination limited. So he cannot call himself a poet. He is a marginal polemicist, attached to the moment, engaged in obscure skirmishes. From In the Audience a short story of mine.

 

Forty years later I have become Maxwell. But Maxwell now has access to the internet. As a result I keep writing comments to the online New York Times. Comments are specific to an issue. Are specific to what you have just read. You don’t have to create a context. You don’t have to create a world. The context is already there. It envelops you.

Hatred of the “other” united them. Until they saw each other as the other.

That could mean almost anything. So without reading the article it makes next to no sense.

It was a comment about tensions between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump. Two people who first bonded over their shared xenophobic hatreds.

Who is Jeff Sessions? Who is Donald Trump? No need to explain who they are or what they were fighting about. It was all there in the article. And in any case most people know who they are. Certainly true of Trump and significantly true, though to a far lesser degree, of Sessions.

Yet who in three years will know who Jeff Sessions is? Or in ten years who will remember Donald Trump? Just the other day it took me 30 seconds to conjure up Dick Cheney. In fact I was trying to remember his name to illustrate this very point. So my comment, as well as this essay, will have a very short shelf life. At least in terms of the specifics.

So to mitigate the possibility of that happening, I write this for those who might read this centuries in the future: Donald Trump was President, an office of great power in the United States, a nation – the concept of “nation” to be explained in another essay– of enormous military and economic might that was prone to much viciousness and destruction.

*

 

The Times over the years has disgraced itself. During the lead-up to the second War on Iraq it functioned almost as the propaganda arm of the state. More recently it disgraced itself again in its bizarre coverage of the presidential campaign.

The Times supported Clinton but published endless stories about Trump. And totally ignored Sanders. The cynicism of the editors, their craven clickbait pandering was shocking at first, until I realized that they were operating out of a very current sense of corporate morality. Their identification and fascination with wealth/power/celebrity—while certainly not different from before– was expressed without a trace of embarrassment. There was no attempt now to even hide it. The sections of the paper I hardly ever read were those that dealt with Style, Food, Travel, Real Estate, Business. If I were a good social critic those would be precisely the sections I would read and study. On those very rare occasions when I did read those sections, I might write a comment.

“Tons of olive oil,” Mr. Flay promised in a January interview in The New York Times as the space in NoHo was under plywood. “Tons of salty flavors like anchovies and olives and capers. Lots of citrus. Tons of things like tomatoes and peppers, both hot and sweet.” Certainly no homeless people. And that is where it all is. A homeless shelter converted into this restaurant without homelessness in any way being seriously addressed. Certainly not this guy’s fault. But just symbolic of what a heartless screwed up messed up city this has become.

 

I expanded this into a letter to the public editor.

 

Dear Margaret Sullivan

Just read a restaurant review “Gato from Bobby Flay” which accompanied a slide show. Clearly Bobby Flay was someone I was expected to know. It looked almost like a paid advertisement. The restaurant was in a space that was once a homeless shelter. I flashed on that series of homelessness which focused on a girl and her family. It was a powerful series. A constant thread running through the series were descriptions of trendy places such as this restaurant that were sprouting up in poor and working class neighborhoods where people were in the process of being displaced by those who could afford to eat in such places.

You mentioned a couple of times that you thought the series should have won a Pulitzer Prize. My reaction was twofold. I don’t value prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize, but still  I thought that it would be wonderful if they got one. The writer and photographer did a tremendous job. So why shouldn’t they be rewarded in a way that means something to them. More importantly winning a Pulitzer Prize would give some added weight (probably a little wishful thinking on my part) to the discussion of poverty and homelessness. And some added exposure to the series. My guess is that they didn’t win the prize for bad reasons. But I have no way of knowing that. The other feeling I have is I am glad they didn’t get it. The Times which is so linked into wealth and power uses these wrenching emotional pieces as a way to generate revenue and salve its conscience. In this way the editors and the publisher would have to live with the frustration that a series such as this for once couldn’t be absorbed and reduced to an “emotionally wrenching prize-winning series.” This restaurant review brought all that back to me in a big way.

 

*

 

 

 

How to write a comment?

What goes on into writing comments. Who are you writing them for. Are you hoping a columnist will read what you’ve written. A comment might take on a familiar tone, “Charles, what’s going on with you?” Most columnists though seem to pride themselves on not reading the comments. Are you writing then for the other commenters or for those in general who read the comment section. Are you writing just to scratch an itch or help yourself figure something out. Are you writing a comment to vent and don’t particularly care if it gets published or not. Are you writing for friends. Or are you writing comments to help build some type of political or cultural momentum. Or to pass information along. Or do you write them to generate interest in your work. Maybe to develop a following. Some commenters, some of the most profound, provide links to their blogs. There are commenters who seem to have an opinion on almost any subject.

Some commenters clearly spend a lot of time on their comments. They are beautifully written gem-like mini columns all written within the permitted 1,500 characters. Some comments pack a wallop. Some can be as short as one word. Others take up all 1500 characters. And some people write really cool poems.

As for me there are times when I might sit in a cafe or be taking a walk and a comment just hits me. In the cafe I can actually write it out. Fortunately this doesn’t happen too frequently. Usually I just write a comment at home and that’s the end of it.
A nasty “reply” to a comment of mine—if I feel the need– might in fact take a long time to figure out how to answer. Particularly if I want to engage what the person said without throwing back an insult.

As a commenter you might think you got it all doped out. That you have a handle on the biases of the paper, know its hidden agendas, grasp the stated and unstated assumptions of the columnists and that your own perceptions and political and psychological understandings won’t be overwhelmed by being immersed in its world. But cumulatively your own thinking becomes a captive to the agenda set out for you. Why Cambodia today. Venezuela tomorrow. Zimbabwe two days ago. Healthcare today. Something else tomorrow.

You are almost entirely reactive. You think about what they want you to think about, when they want you to think about it. You are talking about what they want you to talk about. You are writing about what they want you to write about. Clickbait hooks you. Writing a comment gives you a false sense of your own power. Because whatever you have to say is secondary to the fact that you are hooked into saying anything at all. For me there is also the added factor that I also don’t know who most of the politicians, celebrities and cultural figures almost everyone else casually refers to in articles, columns and comments are.

 

Living in your own head. Living in the past. Or living in a very limited present doesn’t make for a good commenter. In speaking to a new friend on a long walk I mentioned I was a pacifist and a kind of libertarian. A look of real discomfort and surprise crossed her face. She associated libertarian with the ugly reactionary movement it has become. Not “libertarian socialist” that existed solely in my imagination as a part of my clueless ancient lexicon. When I saw her face I was jolted into the present. I was aware enough to grasp what her look meant.   I tried to scramble my way out of it. My compulsive need to explain what I meant made matters worse. If I wasn’t a “libertarian” I was then a compulsive neurotic who couldn’t leave anything alone.   At least that’s how I felt. I still get embarrassed whenever I think about it.

Acronyms are another thing I have to contend with. For me they have always been near impossible to figure out. My mind needs to unpack an acronym. And in most cases I simply can’t do it. Most columnists, reporters and commenters use them matter of factly with no trouble at all. New acronym’s appear almost magically from thin air. They can come from anywhere: the tech industry, the political arena, the music industry, the streets, almost anywhere. How do people know for example that SCOTUS means Supreme Court of the United States? Was there ever a president before there was POTUS? From one day to another people talk as if that was always the case. How does that happen? And how does everyone know what everything means at the same moment in time? This puts me at a great disadvantage as a commenter. Clearly I understand some things but don’t share a language that others– no matter their differences– seem to share with each other.

*

As I start to pull myself away from comment writing, I find myself on a comment writing binge. It has become a swirl of pontification, insight, hot air, eloquence, humor, repetition. Don’t even remember what my comments are about. I get a notice and I think “huh, what did I write.”

To the extent I’m noticed at all, my guess is people just roll their eyes whenever they see my name. I’ve saved 95% of my thousand or so comments. Looking them over– uhh– collectively they sound like a dreary repetitive drone.

I don’t think that is entirely the truth. But I am almost oblivious to the fact that just because I’ve written so many that people will likely recognize my name. I recognize the names of most of the regular commenters. So there is no reason to assume that they don’t recognize my name as well. Until I started writing this that thought never really penetrated my brain. Obviously I knew that people read what I wrote. And I wrote individual comments knowing people would read them. But the idea that it could extend beyond that and that my name itself might elicit some type of reaction never occurred to me. It is not a thought that gives me much pleasure.

 

*

There are times where I take a comment and with a change of a word or two turn it into a piece unto itself. Here are two that I particularly like.

I think cops often frame people that they think are guilty. The law and order cynicism depicted on most TV crime shows functions as propaganda designed to coarsen people’s attitudes towards the violation of people’s rights. “Lawyered up” is always said with contempt. In these shows the threat of rape in prison has been used as way to coerce a suspect into co-operating. Sometimes when a rapist or suspected rapist is caught there is vindictive glee in what will happen to them in prison. In addition there is often tacit approval of a beating, as a suspect is being transported from one place to another. Brutality and rape are sanctioned on these shows. There is nothing to indicate that this doesn’t happen quite often in real life.

                                                            ——

A former Playboy model surreptitiously filmed an older (to me younger) woman in the gym and made some smarmy comment about her appearance. She posted it on Snapshot writing, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.”

         She insisted that it was a spontaneous moment of malice she just had to share with a few friends. Not something she expected to go viral. But it did.

         Relentless fury, outrage and contempt came down on her– “Body shaming” “Fat shaming”– until she couldn’t leave her home. The words of criticisms were very accurate. But the relentlessness of it, the magnitude of it, the underlying rage and cruelty was the same. Only the target had shifted.

       Things will never change if vindictive glee is the only power people allow themselves to feel.

*

 

On rare occasions when I want to be particularly effective my attitude, my concentration, my language, my intent shifts. I keep within very sharp parameters. I remain specific to the issue. I try not to make some larger point. I try not to be too polemical or too aggressive or slip in other thoughts that matter to me, but can become a a distraction. And I try not to broaden the critique into a much larger critique of the society at large. But still stay within some serious humanistic consensus.

 

A number of years ago, I sent a letter to-the-editor in response to an article about emergency rooms. Even though the odds of getting a letter (as opposed to a comment) published are remote, I was still surprised that it didn’t appear. But as it turned out they were saving it. Ten days later it accompanied an editorial about the shame of emergency rooms. It appeared in both the online and print version of the paper and was placed in a very prominent spot in each. When I visited my mother in the hospital and told a doctor about the letter, he said, “You wrote that letter? The whole hospital is talking about it.”

 

 

To the Editor:

My mother, who is 89, recently had two extremely traumatic experiences in the emergency room. One time she waited over 36 hours, the other time over 20 hours, before they found a room for her. Both times she emotionally came apart, and her condition dramatically deteriorated.

Since reactions such as my mother’s are extremely common, I think there should be a special emergency room for older people that at least tries to mitigate, as much as possible, the nightmare of dislocation, as well as some of the horrible spinoff damaging effects of being there. Separate emergency rooms are already in place for children and people with asthma.

Sadly, there’s no way of escaping the fact that what happens on the bottom floor of a hospital has an impact on what later happens on the upper floors.

Robert Roth
New York, Jan. 20, 2008

A couple of years later the hospital set up a separate emergency room for older people. How it actually played out in the long haul I don’t know. Someone recently told me his wife had been treated miserably at the ER there.

 

Another time, I wrote a comment to the public editor Margaret Sullivan about the lack of coverage of the Sanders campaign. For reasons she never explained, she had ignored this glaring truth for months. As well as publicly ignoring all the complaints coming into the paper about it. I wanted to be the feather that tipped the scale. She had just returned from vacation.

 

Welcome back.
In reading the comments sections I read over and over again complaints about the lack of coverage of the Sanders campaign. That seems to be a very legitimate complaint. Since I haven’t read everything you have written, I don’t know whether or not you have addressed the issue. The complaints still are coming. I am curious how you see it. Thanks.

She responded: Many Times readers have been asking me, over months now, to examine the paper’s coverage of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run. It’s even reached the point where, in comments to my blog posts, on completely unrelated topics, readers are complaining about what they see as dismissive coverage and asking that the matter get my attention. (See the top reader-recommended comment by Robert Roth here.)

 

She made some inquiries and got smug dismissive bureaucratic answers. She herself sounded unusually tentative about it all. Coverage increased but not nearly as much as I had anticipated.

 

 

The elimination of the role of public editor

 

“The public editor,” according to the way the New York Times had described it, “works independently, outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper.” This of course was mitigated by the fact that the Times was paying the salary of the public editor. The job ostensibly was to monitor the paper for ethics violations, examine biases, patterns of coverage, point out serious inconsistencies, etc, etc. The public editor was also there to function as a liaison between the readers and the paper.

The public editor I was most aware of was Margaret Sullivan, who wrote the most columns and seemed to be the most actively and publicly engaged. She was very alive to the job. Raised serious issues, was colorful and took readers’ concerns seriously.

At first she was treated with respect by the editors, reporters and columnists. Her criticism, which were serious, humane and at times pointed, were answered, maybe argued with, and actually a few of her suggestions resulted in small but significant changes at the Times.

After a while the people she questioned started double-talking her. There seemed to be absolutely no embarrassment on their part. They clearly couldn’t care less how the readers would take in their nonsensical rationalizations. As time went on it was equally clear that they didn’t care too much how Margaret would take them in either. She would even point out their evasions. She more and more was being ignored. There wasn’t even any attempt to make sense in the way they responded. It was spin without finesse. Just a cynical assertion of power to do whatever they wanted to do. Seemingly not caring at all how they sounded. At this point she was treated with barely concealed disdain. Double talk became triple talk and her status dropped to almost that of a commenter. She started to sound beaten down. It seemed to me that a kind of Stockholm Syndrome kicked in where management nonsense started making some kind of sense to her. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But the energy, passion and liveliness of her column waned considerably as time went on. When her contract was up, she moved to a new job.

She was replaced by someone who was much more accommodating to management from the git go. Not a management flunky but someone seemingly more in sync with their basic way of thinking. It was a bit confusing. And a big come down.

For most of her tenure Sullivan had been sharp and forceful. She took readers complaints and concerns seriously. You would actually wait for her columns to appear. She was lively and engaged. She was in many ways an advocate for the readers. Soon after the new editor took the job, the role of public editor was eliminated. There was nowhere now that a complaint or critique by a Times reader could be articulated, let alone addressed. Even the illusion of participation was stripped away.

In simple human terms for the new public editor to have her job pulled right from under her was just plain lousy. In her final column she wrote a painful good-bye. Clearly she felt very hurt by the firing. In her mind she was an independent autonomous voice. I once wrote : “Timid expressions can feel like ferocious assertions to the person who makes them. The effort is often extreme and brave.” She didn’t see herself the way I saw her. Her hurt and I think feelings of humiliation were real.

I think Margaret Sullivan scared the Times. The role of public editor had some real bite to it. My guess is the hiring of the new person was a half hearted effort to preserve the role, while effectively reducing its disruptive power. But the new editor was still independent and dangerous enough for the Times to drop the role altogether. The power of management asserted in a high-handed extremely destructive way. Revealing in stark terms, the heartless corporate model no longer needing even some faint cover of decency. It was a bitter blow to many of us.

 

*

There has been an obsessive, relentless fury towards Trump among all the Times columnists and many of the commenters. There is something off about it. It reminds me of the way soap operas might deal with social conflict. Tensions and contradictions are heightened (sometimes brilliantly), but can only be “resolved” in conventional and unsatisfying (really ridiculous) ways.

 

Because Frank [Bruni] is unwilling or unable to make any deep structural criticism of the society, he pours all this added rage onto a particularly vile manifestation of it. And leaves the rest of it alone.

 

Across the political spectrum at the paper, the Times columnists seem to picture themselves as a part, or maybe even as the leaders, of the “Resistance”.

 

At the Times you have the reactionary wing of the Resistance: David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens. Three people genuinely repelled by Trump’s vileness but are equally upset that their own mean spirited agendas [not exactly the same ones] will be derailed as a result. They speak with soft reasonable (sometimes nasty) voices as they push pretty chilling policies.

 

Then you have the Clintonian wing of the Resistance: Kristoff, Krugman, Blow, Bruni, Collins, Egan. They genuinely want some measure of social justice as long as it remains well within bounds and doesn’t disrupt corporate power too much. It is also a place where war criminals like Gen. Mattis are considered “adults” who they hope will help reign in Trump. If Clinton had won there would probably be not one peep of criticism of whatever acts of military aggression she would very likely have committed.

 

Finally you have the resistance wing of The Resistance which is basically confined to the “free speech zone” called the comment section. It is where actual analysis and transcendent visions are allowed to appear. Unpaid and marginalized, it is one part semi-liberated space and one part cordoned off area. Structurally, there is an attempt to tame and control the passions of commenters that often flow in that section. But still that section often glows as more than a handful of people keep forging ahead with great passion and intensity.

 

*

   I’ve had to go cold turkey. My friend dropped his subscription to the Times. As a result I lost access to the on line edition.   I can only read 8 free articles this month. Though you can turn to the Times and see the headlines and a description of the article. If you are quick enough you can click on an article, cut and paste it before a notice pops up that you have exceeded the number of allowed free articles for the month. This only works on occasion. But still that doesn’t allow me to write a comment,

I was once hooked on soap operas. After 9/11 I couldn’t get the channel my favorites were on for an extended period. Felt good to get rid of them. Never went back. Never was even tempted to. This is proving more difficult. Too much is happening too fast. And almost everything looks tempting. And it turns out I have more affection for the writers than I realized.

I haven’t been able to check the comment sections. And in most cases it seems I don’t miss it. But there are times I wish I could write a comment. But so far that has only happened a handful of times. One was about Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin. Why? Somehow he got stuck in my brain. And I wanted him out. That feeling has passed. Well not exactly. In fact I started writing something and thought maybe I would include it here as an example of withdrawal symptoms. But thought the better of it.

I will conclude with my favorite exchange in the comment section. There was a magnificent Times Op- Doc [documentary] focusing on a heavy set black woman in her thirties who had taken up pole dancing. She was beyond graceful. She was strong, limber just shining with energy, focus, charm and determination. She spoke of the racist, sexist body shaming forces she had to overcome in pursuing her pole dancing career. In addition to performing she had started a pole dancing school.

Robert Roth

NYC December 7, 2016

 

I just turned 73. Was wondering what I should do to strengthen my body and increase my flexibility. Admittedly from this chair to a pole might be a long trek. But then again…

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Roz The Diva

Brooklyn December 8, 2016

Robert, I’d be HONORED to have you in my class. HONORED. I’m not kidding at all. Hit up my website to see my schedule: rozthediva.com/schedule

 

I was walking on air for two days.

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Quechua, Fredy and Me. Robert Roth

Kay semanamantapacha pananam brother Robertwan sapan simana cafeychata waqtaspaq tutuky imaman rimasunkunachu. May ladu Nuyur pampapiraq sumaqta rimayasaqku. Este es un frangmento de “Muyurina y el presente profundo: poeticas andinas y amazonicas” editado por Juan Guillermo Sanchez. Va con todos los mejores deseos de pronta recuperacion a nuestros hermanos de Puerto Rico, una de cuyas poetas es parte de esta entrega. Imagen tomada por el super Armando Mejia.

Quechua, Fredy and Me

Robert Roth

Eight years ago a young fashion designer from Zimbabwe, with flair and charisma and a powerful poetic sensibility–stayed with me for a number of months. We would go places together. No one could figure out our relationship. I was a pretty scruffy Jewish man in my 60s. And she was an elegant total knockout in her late 20s. A sizzling energy always passed between us. Waiters would get tongue tied and drop dishes. People seeing us in the street would stumble over themselves. Aziza– who could stop traffic when she walked down the street–said the attention we got was different than what even she was used to.

Like Aziza, Fredy Roncalla is stunning looking with an intensity similar to hers. He projects a magnetism, warmth and a profound sense of engagement. Fredy, a poet in three languages (Quechua, Spanish and English), is also a musician, a singer, God what a singer, and maker of funky jewelry. We meet every Sunday before the opening of the flea market in Chelsea where Fredy has a booth. Each time we meet we cover the whole gamut of existence. Fredy always making sure we never get too full of ourselves.

People pass by. Occasionally Fredy might speak to someone in English or Spanish. I might say hello. Mostly though we just wave. Still our meetings seem to have become part of the landscape. One Sunday I couldn’t make it. People kept asking Fredy where I was. Another time a woman I only waved to, came over to tell us that she was going away for a few months and we shouldn’t worry.

What role does Quechua play in our friendship? In one way it exists in something like the third sphere of contact, in another it is smack front and center. We speak only in English. I don’t speak Quechua and I barely speak Spanish. But I’ve gone to events where Fredy will sing or read poems in Quechua. When he sings or recites a piece in Quechua–sometimes mournful, sometimes joyous–you feel the full weight of history in his voice. It is also very clear that even the simple affirmation of one’s language can be an act of resistance.

What happens when the language you speak is your first language and it is the other person’s second or third language. A certain imbalance is simply built into the exchange. And when in addition the language you speak has a gruesome murderous history, a language linked into major historical crimes, it just lays there, no matter how invisible it might feel. And this is true no matter how much you share in common or how special and profound your contact is.

I once walked into a reading where one of my closest friends, the great poet Myna Nieves, who

398

was born in Puerto Rico, was listening to a poem read in Spanish. Her body shook with laughter. Her face was glowing with delight. My friend who understands my work as deeply as any person on the planet never ever could laugh so fully in response to anything I wrote. I felt a real and immediate divide.

A couple of years later a book of another close friend, a poet from Ecuador, came out. It was 399 written in Spanish. In a whiny, pained voice I said to her over the phone, “I wish I knew Spanish
so that I could understand your book.” “Why don’t you get a fucking dictionary,” she replied. It
was the first and only time she was ever so cutting in her response to anything I did or said.

Fredy has published pieces of mine on his magnificent blog Hawansuyo. It is one of the places I most cherish appearing in. His blog has international reach. A warm extraordinary humanism as well as a profound radicalism permeates throughout. My pieces are written in English. But Fredy takes a special pleasure in writing the intros in Quechua.

There are times I ask a friend to join us. Usually someone visiting me from out of town.

A poet from Puerto Rico, a filmmaker from Peru, an artist from Venezuela, a postal worker from Phoenix, a school teacher from NJ, a labor organizer from Boston.

Sometimes a visitor makes a special request to meet him.

And so there we are on a early Sunday morning engaged in the most spectacular and interesting conversation imaginable. Sometimes Fredy and the other person speak in Spanish. If so, I just sit back and listen. Other times the conversations are in English.

I think I will conclude with this poem we wrote one Sunday morning.

Two Guys Talking Shit at Chelsea [Market]

to the smell of Mexican music
exploring the endless bullshit and emptiness of power and hierarchy: the worst jail there is
(with all due respect)
Now Four Guys Talk Shit at Chelsea [Market]
Two siblings join the day
Brother from Phoenix

Sister from New Jersey
Postal worker and teacher
Unexpected bonus
New angles of understanding
All throwing it around with the best of them

Chayllam chay

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Meditations on And Then Volume 19. Bernie Tuchman

Tras un corto periodo de lectura de las entregas de la revista And Then, Bernie Tuchman suele haber una resena poetica de todo el contenido del volumen, pagina a pagina, imagen a imagen. Mas que sinopsis, es la huella que cada lectura va dejando en el poeta. Es tal vez asi como en realidad se leen  y entienen los textos, desde los poeticos hasta los imformativos. La generosidad de Bernie se muestra no solo en este registro  sino en la practica de escuchar con el ojo poetico y el espiritu a cada uno de nosotros.

After reading And Then Magazine Bernie Tuchman does a poetic register of each piece. Rather than a chronicle this a register of the poetic traces the work of art leaves on the poet. Maybe this is the way we really read poetry and even mundane texts. Bernie’s generosity is evident not only in this way of writing, but in listening everyone of us with spiritual and poetic eyes.

Qanlla anllinlla Bernie. Sapan kutin Brother Robert qanmanta rimapayawan

Aqui las meditaciones completas Bernie Meditation

De las cuales reproducimos las dedicadas a Fredy Roncalla (Sobre Flat tire, tambien publicado como Llanta baja) y el brother Robert Roth, editor de And Then

 

p 107 Fredy Roncalla

 

we

the passengers

 

needing to get

to where

we’re going

 

not looking

for each other

to make

our way

in this world

 

roll along

 

and then

 

flattened

 

deflated

pulled over

detained

 

we no longer

know

 

we need

to be

we

 

How thick

the ice

between

us

 

who have

never sung

together,

 

sharing only

our need

for a driver,

 

bearer

of responsibility

for our way,

 

to tell us

how to be?

 

absence

echoes

and hollows

 

we look

at nowhere

 

more comforting

than towards

each other

 

our distress

beyond

consolation

 

and then

 

deus

ex

machina

 

as passive

receptors

 

our

punctured

souls

patched

 

we move on

towards

our gaze

 

 

p 108 Robert Roth

 

melting

in a clash

of vulnerabilities

 

serious empathy

finding each other

 

why should

messages

be unambiguous?

 

empathy is

only desire

ricocheted

through soul

 

love’s reach

needs no target

to score

a direct hit

 

it is an embracing

Review of Book of Pieces (Robert Roth). George Spencer

images

This is a book of many things as its title, Book of Pieces, suggests. It is a wonderful combination of literary forms, part diary, part poem, part detailed observations, part self-laceration, part hosannas and much more.  The subject matter, equally protean, is daily life in all its physical, emotional, and spiritual manifestations. It is all-encompassing realism that slowly enfolds the reader in its honesty, simultaneously unflinching, surgical, imaginative and loving.

Book of Pieces, AND THEN PRESS, 2016, takes place, ostensibly, in New York City and Argentina. In reality it all takes place in the mind of the author where everyday occurrences are transformed into striking verbal imagery sometimes surreal, often painful, sometimes humorous.

They had walkie talkies and were some type of civilian street patrol. “Why did you run?” “I thought you were going to mug me.” “No! You were going to mug us.” ”How can I mug you? I’m half a block away and walking in the other direction.”

Roth is a radical humanist wearing post modern attire. The style is au courant. His values demand diversity, question rules and tradition. He insists that humanity is the measure of all things.  This means that self realization is a right and  the benifits and obligations of freedom are available to all. Humanity’s obligations are found in Luke 6:31

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

 

How this plays out in a committed life is the subject of this book.

And it is well displayed in his comments about the magazine AND THEN that he started almost 30 years ago with Arnold Sachar, Shelley Haven and Marguerite Bunyan and now co-edits with Carletta Joy Walker.

 In asking people to write for the magazine I promise them that their piece will be in.

         We won’t reject anything. Period.

…we tell each person that they can write as freely as they want…

…if someone wants to do a straight scientific analysis of the makeup of a leaf, that would be as welcome as anything else…

 Race and gender are of course crucial concerns.

The age range has been between 5 and 94.

Is there another magazine like this in the world? What could be more encouraging to creative, pacific self-realization than an open forum where the freedom to create is assured, recognition is wide spread and censorship does not exist?

And nowhere is the subject of the end of life more honestly and painfully dealt with than in the sections of this book dealing with aging. Roth is unflinchingly about his personal experience as a holder of health proxies when he writes,

238

          It is a subject so fraught with confusion, mystification, love, anger, hatred, ancient hurts, vulnerability, pleasure, need, revulsion, desire, fear, and wild projection. All taking place inside an ageist and freedom-hating culture.

 

And

 

No matter how understanding the person you are talking to might be, the urgency and the pain are yours. All the theorizing in the world won’t mitigate that fact. To interfere with their decision could be a very profound violation of someone’s dignity and autonomy. …people are in fact coerced, manipulated, treated with contempt, and are easily discarded. …Wherever you come down on this, for me at least, when actually faced with real situations, it is all one horrible, bewildering, nightmarish mess.

 

Book of Pieces is well named. One can start at the beginning or at random and be informed, moved and finally enamored of the mind that composed this paean to life in all its complexity; the physical pleasure of sinking 3 pointers on an early summer morning in a deserted basketball court to the hurt of rejection, from the joy of intellectual and political companionship to the horror of living in a world intent on destroying itself.  This is the work of a mature artist who sees the world through the lens of hard earned experience. As he explains

          When I peered into the future I thought the struggle, if you want to call it that, would be between a deeply engaged enlightened humanism and a powerful transcendent wildly humane radicalism. Not between a life-deadening imperial corporate liberalism and a worldwide sweep of fanatic, clashing reactionary fundamentalism.

At the same time Roth, the humanist, in the final summation at the end of this book writes,

A few extremely tiny kids with wild energy on scooters scooted right under me as I was shooting on one of the side baskets. These kids were totally oblivious to me shooting. I kept an eye out for them but still continued, worried that the basketball might hit one of them on top of the head or that I would run over one of them or trip over a scooter and hurt myself. But in the end we all managed okay.

A major accomplishment, stylistically engaging, brave in its subject matter and aggressive in its literary techniques, this book deserves to be widely read especially in this season of pandering, dog whistling, fear mongering, excuse making and political cowardice.

Robert at 80. Robert Roth

Iskay niraq wamichakunata quyasqanmanta brther Bobert willawachkanku, kusa. Este es un fragmento del nuevo libro del brother: Book of Pieces.

cubierta-book-of-pieces

Robert at 80

What a Pathetic Life I Lead

A German filmmaker in her 70s

A Zimbabwean woman in her 20s

Love them both

Wildly attracted to each

Have no chance with either

“I’m a very good lover, a terrific friend and a lousy boyfriend.” I would say this to women and it worked like a charm and more often than not we would have sex. An anarchist poet living in the Village. Sometimes that’s what it would be. We would keep it that way. A bit impersonal, more impersonal maybe than it should have been. It created a space of excitement and had an allure of freedom. Sometimes my actual talent would disrupt the fantasy. “Hey, you write beautifully” with a slight surprise that was always a bit hurtful. But still I enjoyed it. It moved from a kind of cool “impersonality” in playing out a fantasy, to a subtle but real distancing which while at times disorientating was not the worst thing. Because I thought it was still mostly play acting and not all that impersonal. And I said what I said with conviction because I thought it was true. But unfortunately emotions crept in. Jealousy. Possessiveness, expectations etc. One lover said, “I have the worst of both situations. I’m too caught up with you to have other lovers. And I don’t have the security that a commitment would give me.” And that was it in a nutshell. Not exactly a nutshell. Because it doesn’t include my own insecurities and jealousy. Once I understood that I really couldn’t follow through I could not say it again. It would have just been a line, a lie to get sex. And without conviction it wouldn’t have worked anyway. So I stopped saying it. Have not really been able to figure out what to say or do since.

My downstairs neighbor. A very thin dark brown woman always spectacularly dressed. A Mohawk hair cut and an aura so bright it lights up the stairs or the street, always bringing a big smile to my face. Before we actually met I saw her talking to a tender, muscular man who works in the restaurant on the ground floor of my building. His father had recently died and he had been away for quite a while to be with his family. They stood in the vestibule, her empathetic face filled with emotion, her heart wide open and present. A couple of months later we spoke. A fashion designer from Zimbabwe with magic, soulfulness, tenderness and wild, brilliant perceptions. My head spins whenever we are together. What can I have with her, a woman in her 20s maybe early 30s, who wants to get married and have children. And who doesn’t want anything interfering with the plan.

There is nothing I can say at 64. If I were 28 or 33 or 42 I wouldn’t have wanted children any more than I do now. And I certainly never wanted to get married. A younger me now would probably be different than the younger me then. Who knows how and in what way. But for better or worse it is this older me that’s at issue. What would I need to change in myself to have even a remote chance of being lovers with her?

Friends with benefits? My feelings for Aziza too intense and complicated for that. Fuck buddies? There is I guess a difference between fuck buddies and friends with benefits. Fuck buddies might in fact be easier. More straight forward. More direct. Why? I don’t know why. Just felt like saying it. Though haven’t heard that term for a while. Francesca’s fuck buddy moved into her apartment after 9/11. He came over the night before and it was two years before he left. What starts out as friends with benefits often winds up on court TV. At 65 being Aziza’s “boy toy” is probably out of the question. But then again stranger things have happened.

I think again of my beautiful downstairs neighbor. For the first time age really comes in on me. I think of myself at 80. That is just 15 years away. Though 50 was a while ago. And what does she need with that? And how then can this intimacy be expressed without committing her to the possibility of tending to an old man. Obviously anything can happen to anyone at anytime. But here there is an almost certain future if I live that long. A commitment to each other would take that into account. Eighty though is still potentially very vibrant and very sexual. Another reason monogamy as an ideal is shit. With some real fluidity between us whatever sexual connection we had would not limit her to it. Me neither I guess. But in this case it would be her I would be most concerned about. Why am I obsessing and fretting about something that is very unlikely to happen? I guess because its fun to do.

Months later. We speak about one weekend before we became good friends, when she was still living downstairs, when she cut herself off from everyone and everything. No e-mail. No phone. A four day urban retreat, looking deep into herself, trying to find a “purpose”, a direction, a deeper meaning, a deeper pursuit. I tell her about a small cottage on the top of a hill somewhere in Zimbabwe where I imagine living when I’m 80. In my fantasy Aziza has created some space for me on a large plot of land that is dedicated to some very significant pursuit. Maybe a place for children. Maybe something entirely different.

“What will you do there?” she asks. “Well, I’m there. That should be enough” I answer. “You have to do some work,” she laughs .“You can’t just live there.” “I’ll be a presence. What more do I have to do?” “A presence is more than enough,” she answers, yielding to the power of my argument. And so there it is. My future. A cottage on a hill in Zimbabwe. The destination a certainty. The route getting there very much a mystery.

Walking toward the East Side I come to Greenwich and 10th where there is a fork in the road. Totally forgot where I am going, who I am visiting. A total absolute blank. This has happened a few other times recently. Two times at that very spot. Scary feeling. Tried to relax. The destination returned and I continued. At 80. Hot muggy Zimbabwe summer. Wild committed energy everywhere. Up and down the hill. Not knowing where I am. Which direction I am going. Maybe this is something that will happen from time to time. Hopefully no more than that.

The total blank was very scary. Maybe try to surrender to it next time.

My father at 76 had sold his business, but still tried making deals, still overflowing with energy. “You’re still wheeling and dealing,” I said. “I’m doing more wheeling than dealing,” he replied.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Postscript:

At 73 I might have a whole new future. Here’s a link to a wonderful video that just appeared in the online NY Times. My comment and the reply.

Make sure to watch the video first.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/opinion/dangerous-curves.html?comments#permid=20725831