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the littlest whitmaniac



Annike Karbiener Pfeiffer

Born on Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 2010)

our little butterball weighed in at seven lbs. five oz.

and she’s simply delicious.

We’re in a state of bliss—

please spread the love!

With warmest thanks for friends and loved ones old and new,

Karen and Douglas


12 2010

Seventh Annual Marathon Reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (South Street Seaport, NYC, September 26, 2010)!!!

This year’s annual marathon reading (our SEVENTH!) of Walt Whitman’s great American epic “Song of Myself” was moved from the drizzly deck of the barque Peking to the warm interior of New York’s nineteenth-century ‘world trade center.’  Taking the ferry from his hometown Brooklyn to work (or play) across the East River, Walt passed right by this building on his walk up Fulton Street and into the heart of the city… but he stopped and communed with us this afternoon, under the eaves of historic Schermerhorn Row.  Heartfelt thanks to all participants, for making the poem feel both personally relevant and universally significant– and for helping keep poetry alive and well in Whitman’s beloved Mannahatta!  Won’t you join in the chorus next year?

— a special thanks to Matt Gold, the great Whitmanic facilitator, who helped set up this slideshow and brought his whole family down to the event (even Felix!).


10 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Connecting Serbian and American Lives Through Literature

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

As a Fulbright scholar in Serbia in the fall of 2009, I was afforded the opportunity to work simultaneously on the two topics closest to my heart: my family history in the ex-Yugoslavia, and the global significance of a poet from my very own New York.  As disparate as these pursuits may seem, these passions both led to life-changing, bridge-building adventures during my four months in this beautiful and complicated land.

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09 2010

You’re heartily invited to the Seventh Annual “Song of Myself” Marathon, Sunday September 26 2010!

Dearest friends and Whitman lovers,

I’m hoping to see and hear you at the annual marathon reading of “Song of Myself” on Sunday, September 26!  It’ll be the seventh time we declare Whitman’s all-embracing lines from the deck of the barque Peking and over the East River, sailing them from Mannahattta to his beloved Brooklyn.

You don’t have to read to participate– but if you’d like to, please email or call Christine Modica with your top three sections (using the 1891-1892 edition’s breakdown).  She’ll assign the sections on a first come, first serve basis.

The reading will begin at 3:00 aboard the tall ship Peking, located on Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport.  If you do decide to participate, please arrive no later than 2:30. Check in will be located on Pier 16 near the forward gangway of Peking.  If you need to arrive later, please let Christine know when to expect you.  All readers will be admitted to the event for free, as will Seaport Museum members. Guest admission to the event is $5.

Christine’s email:
and phone: 212-748-8738

Here’s a photo slideshow of last year’s buoyant reading:

Looking forward to celebrating Whitman’s spirit with you!


–If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves key,
The maul, the oar, the hand-saw, second my words.


09 2010

Walt in the Balkans: the Novi Sad cinepoems

In the fall of 2009, I taught a graduate seminar entitled “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective”, as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Though the University of Novi Sad had not offered a graduate seminar in poetry—much less Walt Whitman— since anyone could remember, despite the generally felt “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexuality and skepticism regarding American propagandistic voices (like our dear Walt’s), I was granted approval to offer a course focusing on the radical, revolutionary poetics of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.  Serbia is just emerging from decades of corrupt dictatorship, violence, and insularity, and proved to be an exciting testing-ground for my personal theories regarding ‘the measure of his song.’ And my small but fierce band of Whitmaniacs did not disappoint me: they participated fully and wholeheartedly, reading avidly in the new “Whitman Collection” I donated to their library (with the help of many generous individuals and corporations, including Barnes & Noble, the Library of America, Recorded Books, the University of Iowa Press and my own NYU), fearlessly discussing Whitman’s boundary-breaking poems and surprising themselves with how gracefully they too could break down long-standing walls. For their final project, I required them to select a “Calamus” poem for close study and translation into Serbian.  As an illustration of how they responded, consider that three of the six chose “Calamus 9”, a subtle and daring self-analysis by any country’s standards, and one of the poems not yet translated into Serbian.

My participation in the NEH-funded “Looking for Whitman” project enabled me to introduce my Serbian students to Whitman as a poet of global reputation and application, and also connected them to other students in Whitman seminars across the US.  Grant funds provided for the introduction of new technologies in our classroom, ensuring that each student would have access to a Flipcam as well as a specially trained assistant (our own beloved Dragan Babic, a senior at the University of Novi Sad).  As a way of encouraging their use of these resources as well as their creativity, I asked each student to design a “cinepoem” that would both verbally and visually represent the translation he or she had composed as part of their final project.  Though all of them worked through frequent internet outages, some were subject to the availability of public computers, and none of them had ever seen a Flipcam before, they each mastered the technology and produced surprisingly professional—and moving—short films.  All of their efforts are viewable on our “Video Map” at

Each of these videos is quite different in style and tone, though they all seem to combine the makers’ deep-rooted love of their country with their new passion for Whitman.  Neda found new freedom of expression in the video mode, as her provocative (even sexy) interpretation of “Calamus 11” demonstrates.  Josip kept the imagery simple and straightforward, preferring to let his translation of “Calamus 6” speak for itself.  Sanja’s visual interpretation of “Calamus 9” invites contemplation, while  Bojana’s setting of the same poem is a Whitmanic celebration of Belgrade, her beloved hometown.  Indira’s translation of “Calamus 22” is recited by a wonderful collective of Serbs young and old (including her toothless grandfather), creating a video montage of overwhelming emotional impact.  And Elma, a resident of beautiful war-torn Sarajevo who commuted seven hours to our class each week, offered a powerful raison d’etre for poetry: it keeps us burning.  Images of Sarajevo’s “eternal flame” segue to Elma’s candlelit reading of “Calamus 9.”

Can poetry matter?  As part of their final project, I asked my students to respond to Dana Gioia’s controversial 1992 essay.  Each of the recent poetry converts gave a well-reasoned and enthusiastic affirmative response, and I found myself happily nodding along with them.  Poetry really does matter, as I witnessed firsthand bringing Walt Whitman to Serbia.  He sounds as true, beautiful, and useful in the Balkans as he does on my own Brooklyn Bridge.  Walt, wherever you are, it must do your heart good to know that we’re all still listening, still learning.

You, where you are!
You daughter or son of England!
You of the mighty Slavic tribes and empires! You Russ in Russia!…
All you continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent of place!
All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!
And you of centuries hence, when you listen to me!
And you, each and everywhere, whom I specify not, but include just the same!
Health to you!  Good will to you all—from me and America sent,
For we acknowledge you all and each.

(from “Salut Au Monde!”, 1860)


04 2010

Thanksgiving in Serbia: in loving memory of Philipp Karbiener, 1 March 1935 (Sekitsch, Yugoslavia) – 22 November 2002 (Glen Cove, NY, USA)


One of our family's treasures is this rare photo of my father and Inge, taken before the onset of Tito's expulsion campaigns in 1944.

21 November 2009.

All day long I walked around thinking that this was the anniversary of Daddy’s death.  I lit a candle for him in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Zrenanin, and told Aleksandra’s mother (who had made some vanille krenzen for a lavish St. Michael’s Day feast I was treated to today) that these were my father’s favorite cookies, that he would be pleased to see (even more to eat) them.  I just called my friend Jackie Gardy to tell her no, I wouldn’t be able to come to the Novi Sad Jazz Festival tonight, that I wasn’t up to it.  You see, seven years ago, I lost my beloved dad.  His end was sudden and quick, the result of a brain anheurism and, undoubtedly, more than a lifetime of trauma and hard work.  In 2002, November 22 became the most difficult day imaginable.  And every year on this date, I allow myself to be engulfed by floods of memories and emotions.  November 22 marks my counter-celebration of self-pity and grief.

Well, November 22 is tomorrow.

I only realized that when I looked at my calendar a moment ago.  Today’s the twenty-FIRST, not the twenty-SECOND, of November.  So that call to my mom, and the drama of thinking about my father on this heaviest of days, could wait another day.

But it felt like today, like today was connected with that other day in 2002 when I last spoke to my father in person and when I had angry words with a thoughtless, disconnected doctor in Glen Cove Hospital, about disconnecting my father from life support.  Such a strange day.  I was teaching at Colby College at the time, and had flown down from Maine to New York the day before, at my sister’s request.  Dutifully teaching my last pre-Thanksgiving classes and giving my students assignments for the break, I drove to Portland Airport in a daze.  When the fog lifted, I was holding my father’s hand in the hospital and thinking about what I needed to tell him.

I will write the story, Daddy.  I promise.

And then blurriness and hospital smell, and then Tante Inge’s arrival and then waiting.  And then hope and then not.  And then blankness.

My father is the reason that I am writing to you from Serbia.  He, along with my great-grandfather, are my loving courage-teachers, my representatives of what the best of us can aspire to be.  Philipp Karbiener (or, as his birth record reads, Филип Михаел КАРБИНЕР) was the first son born to one of the wealthiest households in Sekitsch, Yugoslavia in 1935.  His grandfather, who had served as the mayor of Sekitsch and had  expanded the family’s properties and wealth, saw more potential in the steady gaze of his grandson (see photo above) than in the boy’s father.  From an early age, my dad had received tutelage on land and agricultural management; by age nine, he was a skilled horseman who could gentle-break the wildest stallion on any of the family’s four farms.

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11 2009

Love. Love will keep us together.

The trio enjoying the fruits of my father's harvest on the threshold of his former house in Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), Vojvodina.

The trio enjoying the fruits of my father's harvest on the threshold of his former house in Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), Vojvodina.

My cousins Lisa and Michelle came to visit me for a few days last week.

–Very nice, you say.  Been there, done that.  Don’t families just do this sort of thing?

What if I told you that they left their families and busy schedules in Chicago and the Philadelphia area, respectively, to visit me here in Serbia?  That they’ve never been here before, and that they don’t know another living soul besides me who lives in this part of the world?  And that  they’re not exactly my cousins in the strict definition of the term?

Michelle and Lisa came here on a mission motivated by love.  Though we’re only distant blood relations (their grandmother and mine were first cousins), we’re bonded by history, our devoted interest in the story of our family, and a time-honored friendship.  Michelle’s father Helmut (godfather to both Lisa and myself), Lisa’s dad Ewald (much-beloved Onkel to Michelle and me), and my father Phillipp (their late ‘Onkel Phil’) were all part of the last generation of Karbieners/Karbiners born in the Vojvodina town of Sekitsch.  The family lines had remained in this small town from 1786 to 1944, when the ethnic German residents of Vojvodina were expelled from their homes.  Homeless and homelandless, our family was torn apart by physical separation, forced labor, disease, starvation, and torture.  Surviving against all odds, these young men and their parents eventually emigrated to America (Helmut and Ewald in 1950, my father in 1955) with little more than a vision of a bright future there.

Though they had lost nearly all of their worldly possessions and now faced a challenging reassessment of their cultural identity, surviving Danube-Swabians quickly tried to re-establish what had always been at the core of their communities: family and the bonds of friendship.  The new American émigrés were only too happy to find each other alive and well, and took comfort in settling within close proximity of each other in the Ridgewood/Glendale/Middle Village straddling Brooklyn and Queens.  Families lived together (my grandparents, for example, lived in the apartment below ours) and worked together at knitting mills and meat-packing plants, like Tru-Fit and Merkel’s in Brooklyn.  And when we firstborns came along, we too developed bonds and friendships while frequenting the German-Hungarian Soccer Club, Niederstein’s, Plattdeutsche Park Restaurant, and of course our own elaborate house parties.  Now that I have been living in Vojvodina for a few months, I see that our parents tried to surround us with the comforts they had known ‘back home,’ particularly the food: cremebitte, bundt cakes, dobosch tortes, and apfel strudel were among the treats served at our birthdays (though all we kids really wanted was a Carvel cake).

As the American-Donauschwaben families grew and prospered, many of us moved out of the ‘old’ neighborhoods.  But though the branches grew upward and outward, the roots remain strong. Every time my mother checks up on the old house (which we now rent), she returns vowing that she’ll move back to Middle Village one day.  Our family patriarch Onkel Ludwig still takes his daily walk on Metropolitan Avenue; he’s even found some comfort in the apple strudel and cute waitresses of the Arby’s that replaced Niederstein’s.  And all those parties and gatherings that we firstborns were obliged to attend, have secured lifelong bonds and precious friendships.  Michelle, Lisa, and I—all bossy older siblings that loved school, hated boys (for a while, anyway), and benefited from the unconditional love and support of fathers–  are bonded by our respect for our shared history and our dedication to family.  And in our own 21st century American way, we carry forth the Danube-Swabian sense of community that held the lot of us together for over 150 years.

My mom and Onkel Ludwig in front of the building I grew up in, in Middle Village, Queens.
My mom and Onkel Ludwig in front of the building I grew up in, in Middle Village, Queens.
My baby cousin Michelle and me at somebody's birthday party.
My baby cousin Michelle and me at somebody’s birthday party.

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11 2009

sunset on the salasch

“Salasch-hund,” my father used to grumble to himself about that lazy co-worker, slacker gas station attendant, and the occasional late-sleeping daughter.

I actually saw what he meant when Aleksandra, Alphild and I took our first look around Salas 137, one of the several Vojvodina “farm-estates” now more devoted to entertaining tourists than harvesting wheat and corn.


Salas 137 attempts to portray a type of existence that my family knew and loved for a century and a half, though it is lost to us now.  My father, along with his parents, grandparents, and everyone else in the Vojvodina village of Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), were expelled from their homes, dispossessed of their properties, and put into death- and work-camps at the end of 1944.   After nearly eight years of suffering, sickness, the experience of watching others tortured, killed, or die of starvation, my father, his sister, and their father were reunited with my grandmother (who had been working in a coal mine in a forced-labor camp in the Ukraine, near Luhansk).  Homeless and homeland-less, my Oma decided for them all: “America is the future.”  On the 17 of December 1955, they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

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10 2009

Yugo, I follow.

Introducing Aleksandra Izgarjan:

prolific scholar, skilled Yugo driver, Serbian gourmand, and my dear friend.


You are meeting her as I did, when I first arrived from Belgrade weighed down by book-filled boxes and overstuffed suitcases.  With her cheery pink t-shirt and instant smile, Aleksandra presented me with a warm and gracious welcome to Novi Sad.  Somehow, through the muddle of newness and jetlag, I was gently guided into my new home, my office at the university, and a fabulous outdoor café in the heart of the city (Mediteraneo, on Isa Bajica).  And I listened with wonder and interest as my new colleague discussed her challenging teaching experiences and a startling number of recent publications.

I am pleased to say that my rather small library of Necessary Reading Material now includes Aleksandra’s Maksin Hong Kingston I Ejmi Ten: Ratnica I Samanka.  And I’d happily dig into the over-400 pages of analysis on Kingston and Amy Tam, if only my Serbian were, o, 10,000 times better.  Tiny Walt seems to have gotten much further. (more on Tiny Walt later.  As several of you predicted, he has really taken to Balkan folk dancing– and thanks to Aleksandra actually knows more about two of his most illustrious fans.  Whitman Ah Singh, indeed!).


As intellectual, industrious, and professional as she is, Aleksandra is also adventurous, funny, and—well, cute.  She shares these excellent qualities with her beloved 19-year old Yugo.  It may rattle your teeth, smell like petrol and allow any passerby access to whatever’s on the front seat, but the Yugo has character.  Like its owner, it’s got pluck, volition, get-up-and-go.  That is, when it’s not in the shop.


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10 2009

New York to New… Nork?


…it’s a helluva town!

Stari Grad’s up and the Limans are down,

The fortress on the hill has tunnels underground.

New York!  New Nork!  Both such hellsuva towns!

Liner notes:

“Nork”: a shopping center ‘for the people’ (and actually, there’s a huge “IDEA” supermarket—a relatively new concept here in Serbia—on the basement level of New Nork).

“Stari Grad”: old town.  Despite its name, Novi Sad has a quaint downtown lined with multicolored two-story structures that have a distinctly Viennese flavor.  This, for example, is Dunavska Street, which extends to the Danube River (or Dunav) behind the camera, and connects up ahead with Zmaj Jovina, Novi Sad’s café-lined pedestrian zone.

IMG_0025Most of these buildings were constructed while the city was under Austro-Hungarian rule in the eigthteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Established in 1694, obtaining its present name and status as a free royal city in 1748, Novi Sad soon became the cultural and economic center of the region. The first grammar school opened in 1791 (a good 30 years before Brooklyn’s P.S.1!),  the Serbian National Theatre was founded here in 1861; Matica Srpska (a time-honored cultural institution and the center for the study of Serbian language, literature, and philosophy) moved here in 1864.  Even after being attacked by everyone from the Turks to the Russians to Hungarian Fascists, even after NATO bombardment left Novi Sad without bridges, communication, and a water supply for months in 1999, the center city is charming, elegant, and welcoming.

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10 2009

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