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

добро дошли !

The first words I read upon landing in Belgrade  weren’t actually part of an exotic-looking Cyrillic greeting, nor were they the captions of the HSBC ad campaign that framed every other flight I’ve taken this year.  “Karen Karbiener” greeted me from a sign held up by smiling Dida Stojanovic, the American Embassy’s indispensable Cultural Affairs Assistant.  Dida had ensured a warm welcome for me well before this moment: her fact-filled, friendly emails and her assistance in rescuing a package from Serbian customs humanized complex and often mysterious processes.  We chatted like old friends on the way in to Belgrade, and I found her a great source for juicy tidbits about the city—like the location of its own Silicone Valley, a street well known for its plastic surgeons and parading patients.

After meeting Cultural Affairs Officer Susan Delja at the American Embassy, the three of us walked down Kneza Milosa to the Monument Café, a sleek restaurant with a shaded terrace humming with conversation and a scene-setting soundtrack (you’ll here piped-in music almost everywhere you walk in Serbian cities, from walking streets to public parks).  We were joined by Jeff Lash, the only other Fulbrighter to be sent to Serbia this year.   Susan recommended the cheesecake, and all of us—except you, Dida!—indulged as we were briefed on the Embassy’s cultural activities.  Though the American presence returned less than ten years ago after Milosevic fell, and Susan’s only been in her position for two years, she and her staff have been busy inviting American speakers and initiating new programs designed to build understanding and cooperation between the two countries.  “It’s a great time to be here,” Susan said, and I knew she meant it as she described the interesting challenges of raising daughters in central Belgrade.

–I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, this is a perfect place for a photo of Susan, Dida, Jeff and I.  But at this point I was still shaken from what happened when I tried to photograph the American Embassy earlier that afternoon.  The grand building at 50 Kneza Milosa was firebombed last year during the Kosovo crisis, and though the Embassy is still in full operation, they have kept the front windows boarded up and painted as white as the building itself.  It’s s ominously faceless— and a great photo opp.  You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that an Embassy guard asked me to show him the photos I had taken, and then watched as I erased them.  And to accept the fact that you’ll never know what the Embassy looks like (unless you google it, of course.  I see from what’s out there that I should have just crossed the street).

So, let me focus on a subject that’s much less camera-shy: the esteemed and energetic political geographer Jeff Lash.


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10 2009

songs from the big chair

September 24, 2009– squeezed into Seat 23C of American Airlines flight 100 (to London, where I’ll connect to Belgrade-bound flight 888).   Sandra  Bullock’s antics in “The Proposal” just can’t keep my interest—  I’m more incredulous about the mere fact of my sitting here, in this seat, in this plane headed to that place, than her overdrawn portrait of ‘The New York Woman.”  So much history and serendipity, planning and packing and Love has led to this moment… so many people inspiring or enabling this mission.  Squeezed into Seat 23C with me are some of the biggest people in my life: my father, my Oma, and my Walt.  This visionary company have been more present than ever these past few weeks: my dad remembering his favorite horses on the salas, Oma singing the old songs in her high thready voice, and Walt laughing heartily (eyebrows raised, cheeks on fire) that, by God!  He’s making that overseas trip at last!  And to Serbia, no less!!!

There have been other mentors, muses, facilitators, and friends whose brief roles in this saga occurred at just the right time, providing a memorable encounter or a key idea.  Here are nine of them—none of whom I knew a month ago, though they’ve added immeasurable (and literal!) meaning to my Serbian odyssey. 


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09 2009

seathumbed leaves: a Wales visitation with the Thomases

The love that M. Wynn Thomas and I share for Walt Whitman crosses oceans. His latest book on Whitman (Transatlantic Connections: Whitman U.S., Whitman U.K.) is an energetic and provocative exploration of the remarkable endurance and continued influence of the poet’s work, breaking boundaries of space and time. Wynn’s Lunar Light of Whitman’s Poetry helped set me on my Whitmanic path in graduate school, and I now recommend this illuminating and passionate portrait of Walt to my own students. When I met Wynn in person this June at the Transatlantic Whitman Symposium, I was pleased and awed to experience the power and connectivity I so keenly feel in his writings. The graduate students attending the session, too, were visibly moved by his fierce dedication to studying, teaching, discussing, and loving Walt Whitman.

Catching up at one of the conference’s many after-hours gatherings, Wynn and I found we shared a similar devotion to teaching as well as dedicated passions to our hometowns. Wynn has been living and teaching in Swansea most of his life—which means that he’s been living with Dylan Thomas. Though Wynn admitted that he had never wanted to teach a single author course on Dylan (though he’s led several Whitman seminars), he knows the poet as a neighbor, a ghost, an obsession, a symbol. Wow, I said shyly. If you show me your Dylan’s Swansea, I’ll show you my Whitman’s New York.

Dylan Thomas stagger-danced back into my life this spring, when I decided to include him in my NYU-London seminar, “Bohemian Ink, Beginnings to Beats.” Our final session focused on Dylan’s poetry and love letters (Kerouac’s scroll, on exhibit in the UK for the first time through January 2009, prompted us to read On the Road first)— and as I attempted to wrestle down a few ideas for class, I realized how challenged I was by these rich and highly crafted poems. It was slippery, shimmery stuff, and I needed and wanted to spend more time with it. So Dylan stayed with me through the summer in Whitman’s New York (accompanying me more than once on strange and sad pilgrimages to the White Horse Tavern, where according to urban legend he drank himself to death in 1953) and then back over to the U.K. in August. Of course I had to write to Wynn. Could I take him up on his offer for a Dylan Thomas tour of Wales? Might we really be able to see the house where everything started, hunchbacked Cwmordin Park—maybe even the boathouse at Laugharne, about an hour’s drive west of Swansea? While New York had spelled the end of Dylan Thomas, Wales was the place where he had written best (and most). And M. Wynn Thomas was the person who could best explicate and demonstrate the importance of this place for this poet.

On the morning of August 11, Wynn greeted me warmly at Swansea’s busy train station—and was hailed in turn by several passers-by as we crossed the High Street to the parking lot. It was a wonderful, breathless thing, to drive with Wynn through streets he knew and loved so well. He chatted easily about Swansea’s troubled history, and pointed out several Dylan-related sites that no longer are. The Blitz had ripped through Swansea’s heart, so instead driving by Dylan’s Kardomah Café we past Castle Street’s bland 1950s structures and big parking lots. The streets teemed with life, though—mothers and children, old folks and droves of students. And when Wynn brought me to the top of Townhill, the city looked like a British version of the Bay of Naples—shinier with industry, perhaps, but just as beautifully situated around the curve of Swansea Bay.


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09 2009

Sixth Annual “Song of Myself” Marathon!

On Sunday, September 6 2009, a dedicated crew of Whitmaniacs gathered to recite and celebrate Whitman’s great personal epic. We found well-favored roosts aboard the timeworn tall ship Peking (which, after years of service, is now docked permanently at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport) and dove into “Song of Myself” around 3 pm, finishing up the final section at about 5:30. With Whitman’s Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the East River before us, and the sun setting over Walt’s Mannahatta at our backs, readers declared the poem with spirit and listened with interest (and ready smiles).

The diversity of voices and faces and body languages– the great sound effects and accents and intonations– the complex shifting sea-, sky- and landscape– all of it, food for the soul! Warmest whitmanic thanks to you participants, who affirmed that this poem is very much a song of yourselves… and have done your share to keep Whitman and his message alive and radiant here, in his beloved New York.

Here then, are you readers… and you numberless patient listeners…

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

    Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

So Long! –’til next year…


09 2009

live, from new york…

            Days speed by, tasks and pleasures come and go, events and appointments and happenings happen— all is flashes and specks, as Whitman writes– but time must slow down to accommodate my deliberations over these weekly entries.   It’s simultaneously frustrating and freeing to give this ongoing adventure a sense of order and development…  always and ever the question, where to begin?  How far back do I need to go, patient reader, to make this narrative understandable and interesting to you? 

            Last week, I got stuck on the technicalities of setting up my first blog.  It is time to explain myself… let us stand up, Walt!  We’ll go back to the place we first met, and explain our blog title (or the first half, at least).

            New York City is my hometown, and the absolute center of my heart’s geography.   My love for Whitman and his work comes from many places, but most directly from our shared love of this one place (or several places, depending upon how you feel about Brooklyn’s “big mistake” to become a borough of NYC in 1898).  Both of us were “born” here (in the literary sense for Walt; in the literal sense of the word for myself), first sang on the (omni)buses and swam in its waters (no kidding); we both find the best of what civilization can accomplish on its streets—always and ever new identities meanings signs curiosities faces pageants smells visions fears hopes love.   Both of us, I think, found something spiritual in its raw and undeniable physicality.  And so when I teach a class on Whitman, I find that I must take my students out of the classroom and into New York to answer the big question:  how did Walter Whitman—second son of a carpenter, grammar school dropout and sometime penny daily hack writer—become Walt Whitman?   It’s my belief that “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” was indeed the product of his immediate environment and experience; and it is my aim to introduce my students to a real New Yorker in his beloved Brooklyn and Manhattan, and to have them see, hear, and sense the urban setting that transformed a sensitive young man into America’s greatest poet.  The open road of his poetry is, in fact, the city street—and we explore this idea through texts as well as walking tours.

            Consider, for example, some of the out-of-doors learning experiences shared by us in “American Literature and Culture: Whitman and New York”, a Columbia University summer class that I’ve taught for nine years running.  Summer ’09 in NYC has been blissfully cooler and less humid than we’re used to in the Big Apple, which may help account for how relaxed and comfortable we look here (at a good two hours into a three-hour tour).  After visiting the site of the Rome brothers’ printing shop (where Walt helped set up the type for the groundbreaking first edition of Leaves of Grass), we visited the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, the First Unitarian Church, and the Brooklyn Historical Society before taking in the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Picture 016

            “There may be finer views in the world, but I don’t believe it,” Abraham Lincoln said of this spot in 1864—and here’s my hearty second to this beloved scene!  It’s the best not just because these are my Whitmaniacs (and yes, you guys know that I think you’re the best), not just because of the view of Whitman’s Mannahatta, East River, Governor’s Island (Nutten Island to him), the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, but because this view is enabled and empowered by the community spirit Whitman himself represented here in Brooklyn.  In the 1940s, when Robert Moses proposed running the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through this very spot, Brooklyn Heights residents opposed him… and won!  The highway now roars below the cantilevered promenade, while walkers, rollerbladers, and bikers take in this magnificent, car-free cityscape.  What’s more, the Brooklyn Ice Cream factory (another New York “best”) is a ten-minute stroll away, and thanks to the generosity of Columbia’s summer session staff (yo Richard!), we’re all about to be treated to a free cone. Read the rest of this entry →


08 2009

My avatar.

August 3, 2009:  “Change Avatar”, suggests the even-toned, congenial facilitator of “My Profile” right here on my very first blog.  Avatar?  This graceful and exotic word had recently caught my attention in “So Long!”, Whitman’s  farewell poem to readers of Leaves of Grass.  The poem first appeared (appropriately) as the last poem in the third edition of 1860; its final stanza supplies a startling moment of intimacy and attempts to break down, once and for all, the literary ‘fourth wall’: the page between writer and reader.

Dear friend, whoever you are, take this kiss,

I give it especially to you—Do not forget me,

I feel like one who has done his work—I progress on,

The unknown sphere, more real than I dreamed, more direct, darts awakening rays about me—So Long!

Remember my words—I love you—I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

It’s a memorable goodbye, full of passion and demonstrations of genuine affection.  And Whitman comes as close as he ever did, to manifesting his love—to touching us physically, to breaking down old, assumed boundaries of time and place.  As we run our fingers over the lines of the third edition, the “kiss” of letter-pressed page 456 provides proof of the printer’s bodily contact (hey Walt, weren’t you overseeing the printing up there in Boston?  Might you have pressed those letters into the page, to reach us on the ‘other side’?).  And as we flip the last page, close the back cover, and take our hand off the book, Whitman comes as close as he ever will to being disembodied and dead to us.

These lines received only minor revisions through the next twenty years.  But in the 1881-82 edition of the Leaves—the sixth edition—Whitman added a completely new fourth line:

I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me

Like many of Whitman’s late poems and revisions, this line adds a new spiritual dimension to the raw bigness of his exaltations and exhortations.  Though he might be changing the spelling (and gender?) of the original Hindu word, Whitman does seem to be thinking of avatar(a) as the incarnate, earthbound form of a deity.  Death is the only thing that’ll get this kosmos off the streets!  So then, Whitman’s avatar is holiness at street level, a manifestation of the divine that can be seen and touched by anybody.

Now (yikes), back to “Change Avatar.”  And I’m sure experienced bloggers and gamers are rolling their eyes at my complication of a simple idea:  a “graphic representation of a person or character in a computer-generated environment, esp. one which represents a user in an interactive game or setting, and which can move about in its surroundings and interact with other characters” (Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition).  But for folks like me who actively love the poet right back, celebrate the revolution of his art and receive joy and satisfaction from teaching his message, choosing an avatar is a daunting task.

Too easy, I think, to put Whitman’s own beloved visage in the clipboard square.   Instead, I recall a favorite line from the first poem of the first edition, later entitled “Song of Myself”:

In all people I see myself—none more, and not one a barleycorn less

So, patient reader, I give you… me.


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08 2009

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