« March 2009 | Main | May 2009 »

April 2009

Letter to the President: Torture

RadicalMoi Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.

Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

20 April, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.

Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.

I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.

Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.

A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.

As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.

Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.

For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.

This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.

Yours respectfully,


poem a day: nos. 10, 12 & 13

Sick & Tired Moi This poem-a-day stuff is just kicking my ass, but in a good way. I wrote three today, in the space of a couple of hours, including the problematical Friday one (day 10). Day 12 was moderately difficult (start with the phrase "So we decided to") until I went all Zen about it. Then it fell into place. And no. 13 was pretty easy, writing about a hobby. So I wrote about making books.  I have to say I'm amazed at myself, the way I'm just churning stuff out. Not all of it's good, of course, not at the rate it's coming out. But I think a number of them have some potential. It'll be interesting to see how many I get out of this exercise. What's interesting too is the number of voices I find myself using. There's my old elegiac voice, my new austere voice, my Old English voice with all it's alliteration, and some of the transitional ones in between those, that aren't really remarkable or distinguishable. Hmmm.

Anyway, here's the latest batch, and I'm all caught up until tomorrow. Oh the pressure!

Continue reading "poem a day: nos. 10, 12 & 13 " »

corporate censorship

Rar!Moi In case you were under a rock or celebrating Easter or something today, and haven't heard about the AmazonFail brouhaha, here's what they're up to: Amazon has, ostensibly for the sake of their readers delicate constitutions, decided to strip the rankings from pretty much any book that has to do with anything related to the LGBT community, everything from textbooks to literature to scientific studies, whether those books include explicit descriptions of homosexual acts or not. This prevents those books from showing up in general searches and will ultimately hurt their sales figures. You know, the harder stuff is to find, the less likely people are to buy it? That kind of logic.

According to Mark Probst, who first noticed this a couple of days ago, and wrote to Amazon about it, a spokesperson from Amazon explained it this way:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Among the books being stripped of their sales ranks and obscured in the search function are notable classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, E.M. Forester's Maurice, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, all of which I've read in English classes at some point. Oddly enough, both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have retained their sales ranks (Lolita is up around 2,000). Also stripped of their rankings are Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity has had its ranking stripped.

If you're unclear about what this means, go to Amazon and search books for "homosexuality." You'll notice that what comes up are largely Christian screeds against it, written by straight people, even when you click on "Gay and Lesbian" in the side search tabs. This made me feel physically sick. How awful to have decades of writing just erased from public viewing. I can only image how my LGBT friends feel watching their literature, history, and scientific studies disappear virtually overnight. This is censorship of the worst kind, and a really vile form of bigotry.

Horror aside, one of the interesting things about this event was how quickly it exploded onto the net. I saw a note about it from Charlie Anders of io9 over on Facebook this afternoon, toddled over to sign the petition after doing a little confirming research, and by 9:00 pm, it was racing across Twitter, LJ, and the blogs like wildfire. The Google search results went from two pages to 13.

So I'm urging you to boycott Amazon until they stop with censorship crap. Over at Publishing Talk, there's an excellent, excoriating open letter to Jeff Bezos, written with the kind of gentle viciousness the British do so well. There are Google bombs on the words "Amazon ranks" spreading (look! here's one now!), and numerous petitions. You can call Amazon's customer service: 1-866-216-1072 or if you're feeling particularly frisky, their board of directors. In the meantime, fuck 'em. Get your books from Powell's instead.

UPDATE: This is hitting the mainstream press now, with "Publisher's Weekly" and Salon reporting Amazon claims it's "just a glitch," which still does not explain Probst's and others reply from customer service, or the fact that this started several days ago. There's an interesting theory at the LJ of former SixApart employee who was around for the Great Strikethrough on LJ. He thinks is a trolling campaign. I'm reserving judgment. My natural suspicion makes me think that Amazon is just covering their ass with the "glitch" statement. I'd be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

UPDATE 2: More information and sleuthing at Dear Author, which definitely makes it appear far more deliberate than glitchy. The evidence deals with the metadata entered by both publishers and Amazon and a filter applied to that data: "It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either “gay”,  ”lesbian”,  ”transgender”, “erotic”  or “sex” metadata categories.  Playboy Centerfold books were categorized as “nude” and “erotic photography”, both categories that apparently weren’t included in the filter." *rolls eyes*

FINAL UPDATE:So the word is out it was some Amazon employee in France who "broke" the system by flipping a database flag from false to true. Even if this was not a policy change, Amazon's PR needed to make that clear a lot sooner than they have (there's still no official statement, more than 4 days after this started happening). When the literature of an oppressed minority group starts to disappear without explanation, it makes people testy. And isn't spin control what PR people get paid for? Where are they? Where, for that matter, is Amazon's official explanation?

So did we all over-react? I don't think so. I think it's obvious that, thanks to the vocal activists in various movements, none of us have a real sense of trust in corporate America, or, after the last eight years, in the stability of our rights. I think it was heartening to see how fast the response moved, how vocal it was, and how much it seems to have freaked out a large corporate entity. I feel a little like the girl at the end of "V for Vendetta," taking off my Guy Fawkes mask.

If this were a real emergency . . .

poem a day: nos. 7, 8, 9, and 11 (better late than never)

Badgirl Moi I'm waaaaaaaay behind, so these are my poems for the last five days, minus one. No. 7 is the clean/dirty poem; #8 is about routines; #9 is about a memory; #10, unfinished, is about Friday; and #11 is about an object. I don't know if #7 is the clean or dirty poem; you decide. It actually started as the memory poem for #11, but I decided I wanted to use something else for that. I'm still working on Number 10.

I wrote a mind-boggling four poems today. Mind boggling in number, certainly not in content, though a couple of them I'm pretty happy with. It's a bit like doing therapy, digging up images and ideas like this. "Water from the Well" came out pretty easily and "Wings on a Bullet" practically wrote itself. I had to work a bit for "Walk on the Water" which will probably get a new title too, and "Insomnia" was really a struggle and feels forced. Probably because there are no Ws in it. *rolls eyes*

The game plan is to let these all sit through May, and then go back and revise them all in June and see what happens, and how many I wind up with. But just the fact that I wrote FOUR poems in one day has me reeling. And on top of that I'm sick. So, without further ado, #7:

Continue reading "poem a day: nos. 7, 8, 9, and 11 (better late than never)" »

verbing the teabag, or, more evidence the Republicans are clueless

LibrarianG Slang. Lord, I love it.

English users love to make verbs out of nouns: Impact. Sandbag. Gaslight. And now: teabag. Actually, this one has been around for a while, if not in general usage, since it's a little risque. And that is why it's good to stay current, to keep up with slang. YOu don't have to like it and you don't have to use it, but a little knowledge keeps one from looking like a complete, utter fool. It's not that hard. Just a little research goes a long way. Google. Wikipedia, even.

In this particular case, the irony quotient is just too high to pass up, as it was for Rachel Maddow. It's almost as if there were a mole planted in the Republicans' planning committee. If so, it's the best bit of sabotage I've seen in ages. You can hardly blame her for being on the verge of losing it, with or without the help of her offstage colleagues guffawing in the background. And I must say, this is one of the best use of, ahem, innuendo (no pun intended) that I've ever seen. There's nothing the censors would have found objectionable, but if you understand what the term means in its slang form, the implications are hilarious, and amazingly insulting, considering what a bunch of hypocritical prudes Republicans tend to be. It's genius.

poetry: fail; criticism: win

Swordplayforeplay So the poetry muse has given me the big finger for the last two days and I've fallen behind the poem-a-day. Today's prompt was to write about a routine or routines in general. I should have written about grading papers, because that's what I done today. I got all but three graded for my Modes class, and still have a smallish pile for the Logic bit. But in the meanwhile, there's a fascinating discussion of story and meta and criticism, and fannish appropriation as art over on my pal Gloriana's LJ. Having graded papers all day, and struggled mightily to get my students to read deeper, I dived in with my thoughts on teaching people to do criticism. Go take a look if this sort of thing intereests you. It's sparked by this fan video by Lim, which is on display in a group exhibition in a museum in Riverside, CA. The video, if you are the fannish sort, is a piece of genius. As Gloriana says, it is,

full of the meta, about ourselves as pirates and thieves, done with nods to many fandoms (and, of course, the more of them you understand, the better the vid); and in particular, ending with the clips from 'V for Vendetta', which speak about the power of the anonymous mass to dispense with tyranny. (Or at least, that's one message you can take from it).

If you're not the fannish sort, I'd be interested to know what you make of it.

Us - lim

poem a day: #7

Depressed Moi Stuck. I am stuck. Stuck stuck stuck. The prompt today is to write a clean poem. Or a dirty poem. Whatever that means to you. Housework was the first thing that sprang to mind, but that's so freaking boring. Damn hard to be profound about housework, ever present and thankless as it is.

Okay, let's try some free association: cleaning up, coming clean, getting the dirt on someone, spreading the dirt, ploughing the dirt, clean conscience, dirty mind, potty mouth, cleaning out, cleaning up, sullying a name, grit, dirt, mold, dust, loam, a peck of dirt, Peter Gabriel's song "Digging in the Dirt" about psychoanalysis, dirty bird, jail bird, manure, horseshit, bullshit, crap, merde, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, sweet water, pollution, brownfields, Love Canal, smoke, diesel, dust and diesel (Bruce Cockburn), diamonds and rust (Joan Baez), dirty sexy money, dirty money, black dirt, clay, sand, topsoil, bedrock, washing of the spears, mud pies, golem.

*pant pant pant* I think I've wrung that out.

Now, is there a poem in there somewhere? We'll see.

a little activism

NYCMoi Okay, I've had enough. Here's what I sent off to my state senator and to the senator representing most of my students at CNR and here are their email addresses if you'd like to do the same:
You can find your senator here.

Dear Senators Diaz and Serrano,

I'm currently an adjunct professor at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx Campus. I live in Parkchester and commute by bus or subway three or four times a week to the campus at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx. I'm writing to you both about the looming MTA fare hike, but not just because it will increase my costs in the face of the meager pay that adjuncts make. I'm writing you both on behalf of my students, who live in your districts.

Many of my students are on public assistance. Some of them have overcome enormous obstacles to attend college: abusive relationships, drug addiction, extreme poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, AIDS, deaths in their families. Many of them are still confronted with these problems and keep coming to school anyway, because they know getting an education is a stepping stone to a better life. The thing that impresses me most about my students is their deep desire to improve themselves, to become contributing members of society, rather than victims of circumstance. They work so hard, juggling exhausting, low-paying work, the demands of children, and their school work. I admire them immensely.

Many of our college's classes meet once a week to minimize the amount students have to spend on transportation. If the MTA raises their fare as much as threatened, a large number of my students will not be able to afford to make the trip to school even once a week. This will short-circuit innumerable efforts by hard-working people to make something of themselves. The working poor have enough obstacles in their way. Please work with your fellow senators to keep the MTA fare hike from being another one. This is no time for dithering. Peoples' dreams are in your hands.

Yours sincerely,

Ann E. Kottner

poem a day: #6

BNFMoi I'm sort of cheating on this one because I actually wrote it last week just after Natasha Richardson's funeral. I was thinking then about how hard it is to come back to the empty house. I remember how awful it was after Dad died and Mom was already gone, and I was alone in a house that used to hold three people and snotty cat. At least Liam has his boys, which is both worse and better. Anyway, the prompt today was to write about what's missing, and this was far better than what I actually wrote. I found it in my teaching notebook when I was rewriting what I started this morning and I decided to swap them out, because this is actually a good poem, and still pretty new.

    After They’re Buried

The worst is when it’s over
and everyone else
goes home,
leaving you
with what’s
an absence, a lack:
one less
place at the table,
the vast space
in your bed.

Worse still, the superfluities—
the extra chair,
clothing you can’t wear,
books you would never read,
the hole filled in
with dirt, mounded up,
the urn heavy with ash.
And the undiminishing echo
of blood rushing
or spilled or, finally,

© Lee Kottner, 2009

poem a day: #5

9-11Moi This one was almost too easy: write about a landmark. What else does one write about post-9/11 as a New Yorker? I suppose someday we'll get past that but it's still way too fresh. That surprises me, and it surprised me how easily this one came out. I read the prompt this morning, thought about it for maybe two minutes and had the first and last lines in mind within minutes. I actually thought about writing about the Chrysler building for minute, but there aren't any grinding edges that spring immediately to mind as they do for the World Trade Center.


For months, I turned my face away
refusing to look
as the train rumbled over the Manhattan Bridge,
aiming for the border between
safety and war zone.
The gap was too appalling,
the scorched skyline still dark
and smoking, even in the rain.
I looked north and inland
not out to sea where even
Liberty had turned her back.
The lights came on gradually
but one spot remained dark,
an absence, unmarked.
Finally, I left Brooklyn,
decamped to the Bronx
where the passage over water
is barely noticed,
just a stride
of the elevated train
and not a leap over
fast currents on faith.

I still miss that view:
the Brooklyn Bridge lined with tail lights,
the Watchtower sign ticking time
and temperature in Fahrenheit and centigrade,
barges creeping upriver,
South Street Seaport’s
tourist glitter, the harbor
criss-crossed with ferries, all
evidence of the living city.
Something new is rising to fill the gap
and I don’t know that I can bear
to see it either.
No one knows what to call it—
Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center,
or tombstone.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

poem a day: #4

PirateMoi The prompt was to write a poem about an animal today. God knows why this one came to mind. It was another last minute effort after having a tea party today. The last conversation though was telling, and fodder for the poem.


How sailors mistook you for a woman
is a mystery,
with your homely looks.
It’s strange
the things loneliness can make us see:
a beautiful, elusive woman,
fish-tailed and round-breasted
after months at sea;
a charming prince in a frog
when no man seems right.
Alone at sea with ourselves
or the wrong person
we make a myth, a fairy tale
to satisfy our longing,
even when the real thing,
though unlovely, is
all that we could ask for.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

poem a day: #3

BeerMug Moi The prompt today was to start your poem with the phrase "The Trouble with [Blank]. I got an early start on this one, but I'm still not keen on it. I've been pecking at it all day, since about 10 AM, in between running out to Whole Paycheck in the hardest rain I've seen in years (seriously, the ceiling was about 100 feet and the visibility something like maybe 60 feet just as I was coming out of the store. I don't know how people were driving in it.) And baking a cake. And cleaning up the kitchen. And cleaning up my in box. So don't expect much. It ain't there. Strictly first draft stuff, if that.


The Trouble With Mornings

Dawn, for a start.
Rosy fingered or not, she
slithers in between the gaps
and stabs me in the eye,
bum-rushing me out of Slumberland
to land tangled in my bed like Nemo.
Morning is so insistent,
a nag, a harsh boss, a killjoy.
It’s hard to wring the most out of the luscious night
when daylight demands
so much attention.

Given my druthers, I’d stay
in that nest of covers
especially on rainy, cold days,
wrapped up beneath the down
and Egyptian cotton sheets
like Proust. I’d write in bed,
have eggs benedict
and my first cup of tea
before exposing so much as a toe
to the cruel daylight.

At least let me
get up by increments:
first one eye, then the other,
and my knees and feet. Everything else between
will catch up eventually—
but not before noon.

And if you must wake me
before a decent hour,
keep the caffeine coming.
It’s the only antidote
to morning.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

poetry month!

Writer Moi It's Poetry Month, peeps, and somehow, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and signed up to write a poem a day, from prompts, over at Writer's Digest's blog Poetic Asides with Robert Lee Brewer. Tonight I'm frantically composing at the last minute because I had a long day teaching and grading papers. There will be an instant replay tomorrow night, probably, but here's the first one, anyway. It's an origin poem, as per the prompt.  I thought, what the hell? Why not go for the ultimate origin? So I've committed science poetry. Be merciful; it's a first draft.

Start Here

It always starts with light
real and metaphor:
a minuscule point
in the deeps,
one moment quiescent,
the next—
the universe
cracks open.
Fractions later, the shrapnel flies
at the speed limit of sight,
us and anti-us,
bangs around like bumblebees in a bottle
(those will come much later)
smashing itself
back to nothing first, then
smaller, hotter, faster, fortunately
more us than anti.
shimmer into being,
condensing like raindrops
(again, much later). The universe
A chill sets in, the particles dance
for warmth, and couple
the way everything does
in long, cold nights.
Hadrons and leptons snuggle;
deuterium is born,
grows up to be hydrogen.
Soon there’s a periodic family
at the table.

In the space of
a hundred breaths:
light and matter, and
all that matters.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

This poem brought to you courtesy of Chris LaRocco's and Blair Rothstein's Big Bang Page over at U of M. Meaning that's where I got my quick and dirty summary of the aforementioned events.