Wordsmith Wednesday: Mos Def’s “Wahid”

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We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.

The words are:

“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”

Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular  struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.

In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Junot Diaz’s “Otravida, Otravez”

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Our Wordsmith Wednesday this week is the opening paragraph in Junot Diaz’s short story “Otravida, Otravez” from his 2012 collection This Is How You Lose Her.

The words are:

“He sits on the mattress, the fat spread of his ass popping my fitted sheets from their corners. His clothes are stiff from the cold, and the splatter of dried paint on his pants has frozen into rivets. He smells of bread. He’s been talking about the house he wants to buy, how hard it is to find one when you’re Latino. When I ask him to stand up so I can fix the bed, he walks over the window. So much snow, he says. I nod and wish he would be quiet. Ana Iris is trying to sleep on the other side of the room. She has spent half the night praying for her children back in Samana, and I know that in the morning she has to work at the fabrica. She moves uneasily, buried beneath comforters, her head beneath a pillow. Even here in the States she drapes mosquito netting over her bed.”

Diaz has a way of blending crassness and compassion in way that beautifully mirrors normal life. With prose that is both blunt and elegant, his writing makes you feel as though you are watching the smooth, powerful movement of a skilled boxer. In just one paragraph in “Otravida, Otravez,” Diaz assumes the voice of a female narrator, establishes with some complexity her relationships with both a lover and roommate, comments on the hardships of being a working class Latino in America, vividly engages the senses, and has space to slide in some humor. While this is only a taste of his talent, I believe it highlights his trademark ability to use his lens as the son of Dominican immigrants to confront universal truths of human relationships with honesty and empathy. Good luck, Yunior.

– NR

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Editors’ Note for Issue 4

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The following is the full Editors’ Note for Issue 4:

“There are few things more frightening than being alone.

The solitary entrance into your new school’s lunchroom, hands gripping the flimsy plastic tray as if for physical protection. The silent wait on your doctor’s exam table, wax paper crinkling as you squirm in anticipation of a diagnosis. The empty stage before your first solo recital, a dull hum of conversation behind the closed curtain. The walk up to the open casket with only your memories and last remarks.

While these are all moments of loneliness, and certainly anxiety inducing, they are finite and conquerable. Real terror is infinite loneliness. True social isolation. That barren horizon that appears to keep rolling along ahead, regardless of your vain attempts to slow down and seek refuge in the care of a gentle friend or the compassion of a family member. Just a sad, endless marathon to death.

The majority of the two years we’ve spent working on this magazine thus far have been spent shifting closer towards the cusp of social isolation. Whether it be moving away from home to live alone in the outskirts of a new city or sacrificing days to build a skill set in a prospective career as friends disperse, we’ve found ourselves separate and alone, searching for stability in something other than the conversations and company of our core group of friends. We’ve had to rebuild our essential communities, find our space in our respective cities and occupy it the best we could. This magazine has served as a source of comfort and familiarity through the changes these past couple of years have brought, providing us a thread to a shared past and a foundation for a connected future. It has given us a sort of surrogate community where we could engage with and share the ideas of others even when our social circles were nearing nonexistent. Basically, it kept us from feeling we were running that marathon.

We’ve learned firsthand that literature can provide the community, both of place and purpose, necessary for avoiding the intellectual black hole of social isolation. You can find solace or strength in a story that puts words to something you thought you alone felt. A poem can express an emotion or an experience in a way that gives you a kind of clarity that simple, logical advice cannot. The acts of writing and reading should be a conversation, no matter how distant or indirect. They allow you to shape your perspective in response to the presented perspective of another.

In a time when political theater and its all-too-real repercussions have become bizarrely terrifying, the solace that sentences and stanzas can give becomes an invaluable resource for those reaching for a reassurance that love, community, and beauty can still exist in the face of hate, fear, and bigotry. Literature can provide a welcome escape from reality, but, more importantly, it can shape reality into something you don’t feel the need to escape from. It can provide you that vital conversation that assures you that you’re not alone in the often overwhelming swirl of stimulus or struggle to act in the face of a seemingly interminable slew of common tragedy.

The prose and poetry in this issue creates a conversation about the comfort and conflict that human connectedness causes, providing insight into the rewards and risks of closeness. Pleasure can be a placebo. Pain can be empowering. The acceptance that life is a continuous, unavoidable mixture of the two can provide a sense of calm knowledge. All the works in this collection gave us some sort of insight into the intricacies of people, both isolated and interconnected. Every piece is done with an empathy that touches and teaches us, like talking softly with a close friend.

Ultimately, they made us feel human and unalone. We hope they do the same for you.

Kathy Klimentowski/Nick Rossi
Chicago/Nashville, June 2016”

Issue 4 Editors Note 3

Wordsmith Wednesday: Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl”

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The words I want to highlight this week are from Mitski‘s song “Your Best American Girl” from the upcoming album, Puberty 2.

The words are:

“Your mother would not approve/
of how my mother raised me/
but I do/
I finally do”

With lyrics consistently somehow both vague and specific, Mitski Miyawaki possesses the often indefinable skill of great (song)writers: the ability to make you feel as if you’re getting a glimpse of their unique worldview, a piece of their perspective, while simultaneously articulating part of your own inner dialogue in language you hadn’t thought to use yet. These seventeen words strung together this way bring up latent feelings about my upbringing, the angst of being looked down upon because of perception of my class, and ultimately accepting in semi/pseudo-adulthood that I agree with many of the values and sensibilities I was raised with. The beauty occurs when my interpretation is morphed by consideration of Mitski’s gender, race, her stated intentions of the song, and the rest of the song’s lyrics, which completely shifts the meaning and can give me insight into her worldview by attempting to use a different lens when looking at these same words. That’s how art can help you empathize, how words can help you learn.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Pujol “Getnhard”

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In honor of Freakin’ Weekend VII, our words this week come from Pujol‘s “Getnhard” off the record X File On Main St, released on Infinity Cat Recordings back in 2011.

The lyrics are:

“I’m just going to do/
Exactly what I want/
But try really hard/
To not hurt anyone/
Too hard”

In the years since these lyrics were written, Nashville-based musician/writer/bunny dad Daniel Pujol has built a reputation for engaging classic issues and contemporary ideas in a thoughtful, nuanced way rarely seen in rock’n’roll. While there are a handful of other lines I thought about highlighting, these words are about as close as any song comes to articulating my basic belief system, so here they are. Expression of personal liberty and empathy are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So consider yourself warned, Nashville. This weekend, I’m just going to do exactly what I want and what I want is to FREAK.

– NR

P.S.: Check out some of Daniel’s poems in our second issue!

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Lupe Fiasco’s “Intruder Alert”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a verse from Lupe Fiasco‘s “Intruder Alert” off his 2007 album, “The Cool,” and reads:

“Famine striking his homeland/
and no social standing/
in the economic pecking order/
emergency relief distribution systems is in disorder/
he’s checking water/
making sure it’s safe enough for his daughter/
to float across in the boat he built/
hopefully strong enough to support her/
praying border patrols don’t catch her/
and process and deport her/
before she reach the shore of the land of the free/
where they feed you/
treat you like equals/
deceive you/
stamp you and call you illegal”

In one verse, Wasalu Jaco (aka Lupe Fiasco) concentrates a complex sociopolitical issue down to its human core. Some of the children I teach now are refugees from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, but I have this song to thank for helping me empathize with those in this situation years before I’d met anyone who’d lived through it. As the debate about immigration policy remains a staple of U.S. presidential platforms, I continue to come back to these words for a personal perspective rather than political posturing.

– NR

Lupe Fiasco