Friday, April 25, 2008

Belarusian Poet Valzhyna Mort in Poets & Writers Magazine

The Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort is featured in the cover story of the May/June issue of Poets & Writers magazine. After reading the article you'll want to pick up her book Factory of Tears and if you're in the Detroit-area on May 9th you have an opportunity to hear her read at the Oakland University/Absinthe Festival of New European Film and Writing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: That Big Yellow 'M' -- I'm Hatin' It!

That big yellow ‘M’ with its loopy humps – like breasts really. How diabolically ingenious. The word for mother in practically every language – Mom, Mommy, mere, mor, moder, mama, mutter, mamasita, even in Korean! – begins with an ‘m’ sound – the sound an infant makes when hungrily moving its lips toward the nipple, the sound we make when something is delicious: Mmmmmm….

And those mother-jumpers have commandered it – just as the jingoists would commandeer our flag.

It is a cancer on the earth, franchises everywhere, in every capital city of the world and in the smaller and medium-sized towns, too. Not just in the U.S. but everywhere, Paris, London, Rome, Moscow, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Beijing… Destroying the health of the poor, of kids, ruining the architectural symmetry of ancient cities, adding their ugly emporia to the urban sprawl along with all the other franchise burger, chicken, taco and coffee joints.

Where are the great old American diners, the one-of-a-kind places owned by one man or woman or couple? Where have they gone? Starved out, that’s where!

Okay, maybe twice a year – because I’ve got a bodacious hang-over which craves grease and fat – I skulk into the gaudy red and yellow joint behind its gaudy ‘M’, cap pulled low, and order one, even two cheeseburgers and wolf them down, get a belly ache on top of my headache and go home to crawl into bed.

Why do I do it? Why do I support this junk food factory which plants its fat ugly butt and shows its ludicrous Ronald clown-face on the best, most historic corners of my beloved ancient capital?

I mean it would be okay if there were one or two of them around and if they would low-profile their gaudy facades, but no. They want to be everywhere, to be seen, they want to fatten themselves with big bucks behind their ugly signs that say, I’m lovin’ it – 200 meters.

Well I’m hatin’ it! And I’m hatin’ what they and their kind do to our world. And I hate the fact that this has become the face of American culture throughout the world. What we are most famous for “culturally.”

Why don’t we boycott those fuggers? All of them. Starve them out. Or at least pinch them hard as we can. We Americans can do a hell of a lot better than that!

Let’s put a big black X through that ugly yellow M!

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: Farewell, Varvara; Farwell, Sweet Baroness

Today I escort Lady Alice along the sunny cobblestoned courtyard of Kastels Church in eastern Copenhagen for the funeral of our friend, the Baroness SoniaVarvara Hasselbalch Heyd – just four days before she would have been 88 years old.

Varvara was one of the last of the Danish nobles, a direct descendant of the Russian Princess Varvara Gagarin. Varvara’s life was long and rich in experience – ambulance and truck driver and spy for the allies in World War II, portrait photographer of royalty and of African tribes, award-winning equestrian, author of several books. Death, at her age, is a natural event. Still, it is sorrowful to say farewell to an admired friend, to know that we will never again hear the chuckling music of her laughter or see it twinkle in her brown eyes.

Her only son, Eggy, and his wife Olivia and son Nicholas, stand at the church doors, greeting the mourners of this great woman. Eggy is tall as his mother was, and you can see her in his face, his strong jaw, his smile; Nicholas is even taller, also smiling gently, in his mid-twenties. Eggy thanks Alice for the obituary she wrote for Varvara in the local newspaper.

Unlike the dark and gloomy churches of my youth, this one – built in 1704 – is light and bright, walls and ceilings and pews and pulpit painted white with gold trim. From the ceiling hangs the large model ship one finds in all Danish Lutheran churches, giving a sense of wordliness, a worldly journey, to the surroundings, and the windows are tall and clear – no gloam of stained glass; bright sunlight slants in through them behind the altar which is decorated with three colorful religious paintings, one above the other, within a massive, delicately carved and gleamingly gilded wood frame. Through the windows behind and to either side of the altar can be seen strollers, joggers bouncing past on the high green path. Lady Alice touches my arm to be sure I’ve seen them and I know we are thinking the same, that this suits Varvara’s spirit and love of life.

The central aisle is strewn with a variety of flowers in many colors. Varvara didn’t like cut flowers, felt it a shame to kill them slowly that way. But what is a funeral without flowers? Alice has chosen to honor Varvara with a bouquet of peacock feathers which we give to the church attendant to add to the display.

I remove my Borselino as we walk down the aisle, and it occurs to me that the hat – and my shoes, too – belonged to another friend, Ole; he purchased them shortly before his death at 75 and were given to me by his widow, Bente. His funeral was also from this church, just a year ago, and it feels a bit as though Ole and Bente are with us for this funeral. I’ve never owned a Borselino before. I hold it to my heart as we gaze at the casket which contains Varvara’s body.

The casket, too, is white, heaped with white flowers and adorned at its foot with three of the medals Varvara was awarded in her lifetime – the Crois de Guerre with two bronze stars and Légion d’Honneur for her valorous service to the wounded under fire as an ambulance driver during the Second World War and an Italian decoration for diplomatic service to Sweden. Varvara was a truly international woman, with Danish, Swedish, Russian, and German blood in her veins, the master of half a dozen languages.

We find a seat in a pew not too far back amidst the 150 or so mourners. Varvara had many friends from many places in society. I remember her replying once, when interviewed by a journalist who asked what it was like to have been in company with monarchs and nobles. “What were they like?” he asked, and she said, “Oh pretty much like you and me – but not quite as snobby.”

The organ begins with Schubert’s Opus 100 then mingles with some other theme. The music seems to embody in a remarkable manner a combination of a purposeful procession with a melody at once uplifting and deeply and sorrowfully moving.

Then the congregation rises and sings with the choir the three psalms which Varvara had stipulated – 19th century psalms by Grundtvig, Ingemann and Christian Richardt:

We vision a mansion, fair and good
Where joyously friends are waiting…
Lovely the earth it is!
Splendor in God’s heavens!
Never fear the power of dark.
The stars will give us light.

We sit and the priest steps up with his back to the altar and speaks about Varvara’s life, why it is so fitting that her last service be held here, just a walk from the great mansion in which she was born, the opulent apartment to which she moved after the war, and the peaceful cemetery in which she will be buried. He talks about the things she did with her life, her courage and her pain, her three husbands, the child she lost, the one who survived and how she loved him and his son. He talks about how fully Varvara lived, how she tried everything, how in her childhood she had lost her father very young and had been called upon to make her inner feelings give way to expectations from her mother…

Then son and grandson and four other men hoist up the coffin and carry it in slow procession down the aisle as the mourners file out behind them and the organ plays something which does not sound quite religious. Alice whispers to me what it is – a popular song from the 1940s, from a Danish musical comedy staged during the German occupation of Denmark – “Close Your Sweet Innocent Eyes.” It was written by Aage Stentoft (1914-70) expressly for Varvara when she was 22-years-old. The six-year older song-writer had a crush on her.

We proceed to Garnison’s cemetery, a lovely green place where Alice and I plan to be (,
buried together when that time comes. The six pallbearers lower the casket into the grave, and the priest steps up with a small shovel and throws earth in upon the casket three times, speaking with each shovelful: “From earth you have come. To earth you shall return. From earth you shall rise again.”

The priest leads us in the Our Father, and then the mourners one by one step up to cast a single red rose in on top of the coffin. My thoughts turn, I feel certain, in a similar direction as Alice’s, remembering times we spent with Varvara, sharing champagne and oysters, snaps and chocolates, cigars, how Alice researched and wrote and published a book about the mansion in which Varvara grew up (A Noble House for Doctors, 1995) and in which Alice and I worked for 30 years, how Varvara insisted on doing portraits of Alice, how she would come to my readings and read my books and count the number of times the word ‘fuck’ appears – “Thirty-seven times in that book. Time to find a synonym perhaps?” Once she sent me a copy of Tom Wolfe’s new novel with a note, “You’re falling behind. This Tom uses the word ‘fuck’ three times as often as you do!”

I am remembering what Alice wrote in her obituary of Varvara – that strong and impressive as she was there was a tiny plea in her eyes that said, Please love me. I put my arm around Alice’s shoulder and give a squeeze – in thanks that she introduced me to Varvara who had been her friend for many years before I ever met her.

The burial beer is on the indoor balcony of the elegant La Boheme on Esplanaden – a short way from Varvara’s apartment. The food and drink are elegant, too, fully in the spirit of this elegant woman. Among those attending we see many whom Varvara helped forward in the world with, as Alice noted, her diplomatic powers of bringing people together for their mutual good – a young goldsmith, a journalist, a hospital aide, a film-maker…

We chat with Varvara’s grandson, Nicholas, and his beautiful fiancé, Kristina, a Danish-Canadian who is an art dealer in London. We ask Nicholas what he is doing, and he tells us that he has now completed his degree in French literature and entered upon a career as a film-maker. He is on his way to Brazil for a new project. Alice tells him how Varvara once said about him, “Oh please don’t make him be a banker!”) Nicholas laughs.

He and I have met a few times but I am not certain he remembers me. Still there is some spark of recognition and he seems to make a connection. With a curious smile he asks, “Have you seen this…this blog that has a picture of my grandmother holding a…a petrified whale penis?”

My own smile is sheepish. “I wrote it,” I say. “With her blessing and permission.”
( But that blog has many other pictures as well and many amusing stories that Varvara shared with us about her life and times.

The get-together is just under two hours. At one point as Alice enjoys a cigarette in a chair on the sidewalk outside La Boheme, I keep her company, and one of the other guests comes bustling out, fumbling into a pack of fags – the 77-year-old Ingeborg, slender and sprightly. “What a horror it is,” she says, lighting up,.“that a Dane can no longer even smoke a damn cigarette at a reception anymore!”

Alice and I laugh, and I am sure our thoughts are identical – remembering the sign that Varvara had in the entry to her huge apartment: Thank you for smoking. And the first time I visited her, when I asked if she minded if I smoked a cigar, she lifted a leopard-skin trimmed cannister from a side table and removed a cigar of her own, “Only if you don’t mind if I do!”

At that moment I can see her twinkling eyes, hear the chuckle of her laughter. Goodbye, dear Varvara. There will never be another like you.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Six-word Short Stories

Hemingway is credited with creating the six-word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" to win a bet. There's something seductive about the idea of creating a story in a mere six words. In fact, Wired recently solicited a variety of writers (mostly sf and horror) for what they could come up with (click here to see their results).

As an exercise, I recently had a couple of my creative writing classes come with their own six-word short stories. I was impressed with their stories, the best of which I've posted below:
    Missing hubcap: will pay finding fee.

    Lost Mastercard: five thousand dollar limit.

    And then Godzilla attacked Tokyo, again.

    Sweet sixteen party--no one came.

    Three white walls. Stuck in hell.

    Six die in freak poetry slam.

    Pink bunny. Little fingers. Sweet dreams.

    Montana. Out of gas. New plan.

    Wedding canceled, viewing tomorrow, funeral Sunday.

    Knee bent but she said no.

    Small town: plane ticket: tail lights.

    Crowded market: then he opened fire.

    Layover, Bangor International, next stop Iraq.

    Can I catch my breath now?

    We did all that we could.

    Hard day, pour me another glass.

    I'm sorry--I lost your shoe.

    She bought tickets but headed home.

    Not easily distracted--look, a bug!

    3 subjects; 120 sheets; college sucks.

    First kiss, going in blind, missed.

    What lies beneath the empty sandbox?

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen: The Envelope, Please? National Magazine Awards 2008.

One of my old professors was fond of saying that when the gods elevate you it is just to get better leverage to kick you in the gonads.

Not quite three years ago, my GP sounded the alarm because a blood test indicated I might have prostate cancer, even though I had no symptoms and no pain. Consequently, I spent two years undergoing about 20 blood tests and 34 biopsies, the last three of which were surgical. And I learned the ugly word “catheter.” The doctors were convinced I had cancer because the indicative number in my blood (PSA) kept rising. But finally they decided that in my case the indication was wrong. I just had a high PSA, that’s all. It shouldn’t be higher than 4 but mine was up to 20. They let me go, pronounced my prostate healthy in January 2007.

I had kept a journal of all this and wrote an essay about it which New Letters magazine published last summer. Apparently I had succeeded in striking a humorous note in the essay because despite the gory details, a number of people wrote to say how funny it was. It even won a prize and was nominated for another, and a couple of weeks ago, I was startled to learn that it was also a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

Ignorant as I am, living in this distant kingdom, I didn’t even know what a National Magazine Award was until I started receiving emails congratulating me. Apparently the National Magazine Awards are the Oscars of the magazine world in the U.S., the highest honor in the field. You even get a statuette if you win, an “Ellie.” Along with five other writers I was a finalist in the essay genre, up against writers who had published in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, Entertainment Weekly, and Elle. I was, I learned, up against Stephen King’s essay about Harry Potter. There would be a black tie award ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York City on May 1st.

Nervously, I got my tuxedo out of mothballs (unnecessary – it is a semi-synthetic fabric, of no interest to moths -- I bought it for like 95 bucks about 20 years ago). Thank god it still fit! I must have been fat back then, too. Lady Alice suggested that I wear it with my white suspenders over a high-quality black T-shirt, that I don my Sheela na Gig pendant and leopard-skin pillbox hat for the ceremony. And that I polish and wear my Giglio running shoes. Lady Alice always knows the right thing to do.

I bought a plane ticket, reserved a room in a 1½-star hotel on West 43rd Street ($116 a night including tax – the very same hotel where Joe Buck stayed in Midnight Cowboy), began fantasizing headlines: Kennedy Dethrones King! even as the butterflies in my stomach whispered, Don’t worry, asshole – you ain’t gonna win!

Meanwhile (and here’s where the gonad kick of the gods comes in), I had been invited to take a routine follow-up blood test which showed my PSA had shot up even higher, to 25, so high that the cancer which had proven not to be there would now have begun to spread to my bones. So I was called in to the hospital for more tests.

Up the arse with the ultrasound wand again for 11 zaps with the needle, fiery micturitions and bloody gism. There is no polite way to describe these things. Into the bone scanner (scintograph, if we want to be Latinate about it) where you lie on a narrow table and the nutsy nurse tries to be cute by hovering over me like a vampire and saying, “Now I am going to tie you up!” as she binds my arms in Velcro bondage.

I consider chortling and flirting back, but I really don’t feel like doing that. So I lie there and contemplate my itchy nose, making anagrams out of the name of the company that manufactured the machine, printed in block letters on its side – PHILLIPS. HILL LIPS ILL LIPS PILLS HI LILI PLIP SHILL SIP SILL SHIP SLIP for half an hour, with radioactive serum running through my veins – drink plenty of water, please! – while the narrow table to which I am strapped moves infinitesimally slowly through a big metal doughnut.

When I am out the other side, the nurse returns to tell me I will have to change my underpants. “There is a spot we don’t like on the picture. It might only be a spot of urine. The machine is so sensitive. We put a pair of hospital panties over there for you to change into.”

That’s what she said. “Panties.” I consider saying, “You just want to see me naked, admit it.” But I really don’t feel like saying that so I just go and change from my black Calvin Klein’s into a pair of sexy white hospital drawers. I wonder how they knew my size. The nurse must have checked out my butt, I think to amuse myself, but I am not actually amused. In fact, I am thinking about that spot they didn’t like on the picture and wondering how a freaking radar machine or whatever it is can see through my jeans, zipper, and Calvin Klein’s but not through a spot of urine? Whatever.

To my relief, I learned today, the bone scans proved normal as did every one of the 11 new biopsies as well. (I am now a fully biopsied man, with 45 of the buggers – not to put too fine a point on it – to my credit!) So the gods didn’t want to position me for a kick in the gonads after all. Sometimes they only kid around with you, and they have a creepy sense of humor. But one of these times – comes to all of us! – they will come for real and cut me down. This time they let me off with a warning and a wink.

Oh I forgot! There’s also the bladder probe – don’t forget the bladder probe, another coming attraction in two weeks time. The picture showed something they didn’t like there in the bladder, too, so they want to do a probe. That’s real fun.

I began to think, Damn, couldn’t it be a different organ this time? I already wrote an essay about my prostate gland. Pick another, non-urological one – but not the heart, please. And not another kidney stone. Not even the hope of an Ellie would make me want to endure another kidney stone.

A friend enquired whether I have some Faustian pact with the devil in which one by one I sacrifice my organs for essays that might win prizes.

Hhhmmm….Before I answer that : May I have the envelope, please?

(Tune in after May 1st for the final installment of this cliff-hanging serial! Orchestra: Accelerando con moto! Organ sound-track, please… Penguins in a line now!)

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen: Hillary vs. Obama. Why do we forget?

Listen: this is what I remember, the best of my recollection. My country, the United States of America, which I love, invaded Iraq in March 2003 on the basis of a congressional vote that took place in October 2002. We did so because we were hurt and angry. Our hurt and anger were understandable – a bunch of ugly-minded, twisted fanatics attacked the United States, using civilian human beings as weapons against other civilian human beings and succeeded, inter alia, in destroying the twin towers in Manhattan, killing some 3,000 Americans.

Consequently, in October 2001, we invaded Afghanistan to take out Bin Laden and smash his organization; we have now been there for 6½ years, trying to do that. Then, one year later, in October 2002, we turned our eyes on Iraq – and not long ago began muttering about Iran, too.

But in October 2002, the leaders of the United States decided that Iraq was also a threat, secretly manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The United Nations, about which there are understandably mixed feelings but which I believe is an essential organization, favored diplomatic measures and economic pressure to deal with this, but the US leadership, on whatever grounds and for whatever reasons, decided that this was not enough. One of our potentially great men, General Colin Powell, was sent to the UN to assure the assembly of the truth of what many many people around the world, myself included, strongly suspected to be untrue and perhaps a willful lie: that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing WMDs. Everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was an evil despot, but there are many evil despots in this world, and being an evil despot is not synonymous with manufacturing WMDs. Furthermore, at various times, we befriend and support evil despots when it suits our purposes.

It was my distinct impression that Colin Powell was one of the few at least partially honorable persons in the US administration at that time – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and a few others seemed to me to be cynical, rich, opportunistic, hypocritical people who had control of the most powerful country in the world, though they had achieved that control by the narrowest of electoral margins (and even that might be a hyperbole). It is my distinct impression that these three leaders either intentionally fostered an untruth about the Iraqi WMDs or were deceived themselves about this alleged weapon manufactory. What this seems to indicate to me is that either they are dupes or they are liars; whichever it is, they are not fit to govern. (Thank god, Rumsfeld no longer is governing. He is gone. But torture is still with us as is the other damage he assisted in causing.)

On behalf of these leaders, Colin Powell was sent to the UN to tell them that the Iraqi WMDs did exist and that the world was in danger. Either he was duped or pressured into doing so or he was consciously lying. Again, either way he proved himself unfit to carry what seemed to be his considerable potential as a statesman (and I say this as a Democrat about a Republican) forward on behalf of our country.

Most of the UN did not buy General Powell’s story (most notably France, against whose disagreement we expressed our rath by renaming French fries as Freedom Fries and French toast as Freedom Toast in the US congressional dining rooms) but a few did. Tony Blair (a labor PM whose election I myself had cheered not so long before) placed the UK in the coalition of nations that attacked Iraq. A few other great though small European nations joined that coalition, too – including, it breaks my heart to say, my adopted nation of Denmark. So both my home country and my adopted one (I am a citizen of the US and a resident of Denmark) attacked Iraq along with the UK and a small following of other countries to stop Iraq from producing WMDs, the existence of which many people seriously doubted and which, indeed, today, five years later, still have not been found. Safe to say they do not and never did exist? But of course we quickly forgot that we had gone into Iraq to stop the manufacture of WMDs; when we didn’t find those weapons, the focus began subtly to shift – we had ousted an evil despot. What could be wrong with that? Mission accomplished!

The attack on Iraq began in March 2003. The congressional vote that made possible that attack took place in October 2002. In the US about 77% of the Senate voted to allow the invasion (and in the House the relevant resolution, Joint Resolution 114, passed by 296 to 133). Among that 77% of Senators was Hillary Clinton; among the 23% opposed was Senator Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy has endorsed Obama as our next president. Though only a candidate for the US Senate at the time of the vote on Joint Resolution 114, Obama spoke out firmly against the Iraq invasion, predicting that it would result in the terrible situation in which we currently find ourselves, five years after the invasion and four years after George Bush pronounced it, “Mission accomplished!” parading as a victorious warrior in a phony flak suit on the deck of a ship in the San Diego harbor, many thousands of miles away from the action.

Numerous people at the time of the 2002 debates and since then proclaimed, in contradiction of those who warned that we were getting ourselves into another Vietnam, “This is not Vietnam!” Many who came of age in the 1960s, including myself, said, “This is exactly Vietnam. And we will get stuck right in the middle of the Big Muddy again with the damn fool saying go on!”

But the people who “understand these things” and had the power to decide emphasized that this was not Vietnam, and they prevailed.

But of course it was. We are still there and it gets worse and worse and people are still dying. And finally George Bush decided to pronounce that this was indeed Vietnam. But weirdly, he said that that was why we should not pull out and why we should send in more troops and spend more money on killing and getting killed. Which to my mind is either mad logic or overwhelming arrogance, perhaps both.

Let’s go to the economic questions, the big and the broad ones. Not long before the vote to attack Iraq, there were also murmurs that it would be good for the economy – which at that time had been left in an extremely healthy state by the previous president, Bill Clinton. We had billions of dollars in surplus – dollars which could have been used to build up the American health care system, the educational system, the welfare systems... Now, a few years later, we are billions of dollars in deficit – billions that were spent on war and destruction and on fattening the pockets of the elite rich.

Let’s go back to the vote in October 2002. Hillary – a woman for whom I previously had tremendous admiration and respect – voted yes. Maybe she wanted to prove she had the balls to do so. And she stuck to that decision, for a long time, playing tough girl. I seem to remember a journalist asking her, What if we wind up getting mired in a war in Iraq that we lose like we lost in Vietnam. She smiled condescendingly and said, “Not gonna happen.”

Obama at that time said no. And he predicted that what would happen is in fact that which did happen. Death, destruction, waste, and international shame. He saw it coming. At the time of George W’s daddy’s Gulf War, even Republicans like Cheney were predicting it would be a very bad idea to take the war further into Iraq. That first Gulf War, too, to the best of my recollection, resulted largely from American diplomatic fumbling that no one talks about anymore. A deputy ambassador indicated to the Iraqi foreign minister that the US would do nothing if Iraq invaded Kuwait. So Iraq invaded Kuwait, and George Bush’s daddy got a chance to prove he was not a wimp by kicking ass. That, too, seems to have been forgotten.

Because Obama spoke out against Iraq at a time when it was not popular to do so seems to me to indicate that he had not forgotten. And quite simply that is why I voted for him in the primary and why I am going to vote for him in the election.

We need someone who had the guts to say no at a time when people were afraid not to say yes – and who did it on the basis of a clear vision which has proven itself to have been accurate.

It has often been said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it –and that even those who do remember history might be doomed to repeat it, too. Let’s hold tight to our memories of what has happened over the past few years and do what we can to reverse this terrible situation we are in now.

Let’s give Obama a chance to find a new path for us out of this mess.

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy