Charming Hostess and Ammiel Alcalay at Small Press Traffic

9 April 2010: Friday night. Rushed from sweaty yoga to pick up daughter, bring her home, swallow food (hello family), and then arrive at Timken Hall at California College of the Arts just in time for Charming Hostess and Ammiel Alcalay. I knew nothing about Charming Hostess and had no idea what to expect. This three person ensemble blew the audience away. Charming Hostess consists of the voices of Jewlia Eisenberg (who also plays harmonium)and Cynthia Taylor, with percussion by Michael (whose last name I didn't quite get and isn't listed on their web site. Sorry Michael!) Charming Hostess performed pieces from Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinović's Sarajevo Blues translated by Ammiel Alcalay and a variety of other work, including a song about gender compliance sung in the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino. They then brought the movingly discrepant girl-group sound to the song "Death is a Job." You can hear a recording of this HERE. Powerful and good stuff. Look for them this summer at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

After a short intermission, Ammiel Alcalay took the stage. Alcalay has been reading in the Bay Area for the last two weeks, with appearances at Mills College and the Poetry Center. On Friday night, Alcalay began by referencing the introduction for him that CA Conrad wrote and Samantha Giles had just read. Conrad's introduction revisited the incendiary American Thinker 2005 article, "Poetry, Terror and Political Narcissism" in which author Alyssa Lappen writes about Alcalay's work and his criticism of the U.S. and Israel, making the claim that Alacalay is pro-Palestinian and therefore, implicitly, pro-terror and a political narcissist! I think it was Conrad in his intro or either Alcalay himself who suggested that in some ways the American Thinker article represented one of the few public engagements with his work. Because Alcalay's writing is overtly political,contestatory, and wide ranging in its hybrid and multiple forms from journalism, academic criticism, poetry, prose, and translation, Alcalay feels as if his work is in a critical vacuum. People, particularly on the East Coast, according to Alcalay, see his various engagements, his multiple points of attack, as separate endeavors. Alcalay said that on the West Coast, people seem to take a more integrated approach to his body of work.

Alcalay read from several of his books, including Scrap Metal and from the warring factions. Alcalay said that "a lot of my work is a response to my work," and he advocated that writers read critically their own body of work. Alcalay's new book, Islanders, contains writing from thirty years ago. This intervention in his own work proves to be a rich and engaging strategy for re-thinking, re-visioning and re-interpreting one writer's interaction with a complicated and fraught world. Alcalay makes an example of himself, and spoke about historicizing the many versions of "I" and "self" that he is, and has been. Here's a sampling of some of his work. These pieces are from the warring factions. * indicates a page break.

Miró is in The Museum of Modern Art.

Miró is in Sarajevo.

A famous playwright is on stage at Symphony Space and over the air on NPR.

The announcer calls me twice during a break to find
out how to pronounce the name Izeta.

Izeta is Miró's wife.

They have a dog.

It is December 1st, 1993.


Certain people say we should always go back to nature.
I notice they never say we should go forward to nature.
It seems to me they are more concerned that we should
go back, than about nature. If the models we use are the
apparitions seen in a dream or the recollection of our
prehistoric past, is this less a part of the nature or realism
than a cow in a field? I think not.

The role of the artist has always been that of image maker.
Different times require different images.

Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate
attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint,
our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are
the expression of the neurosis which is reality. To my mind
certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all,
on the contrary, it is the realism of our time.


Adolph Gottlieb


no pyramids dot the skyline

in the seats of power of

this crumbling empire


the ghosts of industry eat
this old half city bridge
of nevermore again
eat Glamoć and
eat these years
(pg s 3-7)

suddenly like shapes of living stone clothed in the light of
dreams I tore the veil the shrouds which wrap the world
the frost of death the flood of tyranny a paradise of flowers
within which the poor heart loves to keep the earnings
of its toil a common home stains of inevitable crime
pride build upon oblivion to rule the ages that survive
our remains violence and wrong an unreturning stream
the grief of many graves snow and rain on lifeless things
this is not faith or law opinion more frail or life poisoned
in its wells that delights in ruin as endless armies wind
in sad procession the earth springs like an eagle even
as the winds of autumn scatter gold in the dying flame
we learned to steep the bread of slavery in tears of woe
these faded eyes have survived a ruin wide and deep
which can no longer borrow from chance or change
what will come within the homeless future that gold
should lose its power and thrones their glory that love
which none may bind be free to fill the world like light
whose will has power when all beside is gone faint accents
far and lost to sense of outward things some word which
none here can gather yet the world has seen a type of peace
some sweet and moving scene returning to feed on us
as worms devour those years come and gone like the ship
which bears me in this the winter of the world (89).

Alcalay's bio from the Small Press Traffic blog here:

Poet, essayist, translator, and editor, Ammiel Alcalay returns to San Francisco to read from his new book --and first published novel-- ISLANDERS (City Lights Books, 2010) and to talk with the audience about the concerns of his work as writer, educator, and literary activist.

Born and raised in Boston, is a first-generation American, son of Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Serbia to the US after the second World War, Alcalay teaches at Queens College, New York, and at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he directs Lost & Found: the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.

He is the author of *After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture* (U. Minnesota), and *Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays: 1982-1999* (City Lights). He is also the editor and translator of *Keys to the Garden*, an anthology of new Israeli writing, Semezdin Mehmedinovic's *Sarajevo Blues* and *Nine Alexandrias*, and *Outcast* by Shimon Ballas (all published by City Lights).

About Charming Hostess, again, courtesy of Small Press Traffic:

Charming Hostess is a whirl of eerie harmony, hot rhythm and radical braininess. Our music explores the intersection of text and the sounding body-- complex ideas expressed physically, based on voice and vocal percussion, handclaps and heartbeats, sex-breath and silence. Explore their awesomeness at their website.

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