Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Ninth Letter will be at the AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair in Atlanta this week, February 28 through March 3, selling and giving away all kinds of cool stuff. Stop by our bookfair table (#286) if you're in the area.

NEA International Literature Awards

The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded three $10,000 grants to literary presses for the support of literary works in translations. The honored presses are Archipelago Books, Etruscan Press, and the newly-Champaign-based Dalkey Archive Press.

Quoth NEA Chair Dana Gioia: "Translation provides Americans with as direct a connection as possible to both the individual voice of the author and the heart of a culture." Ninth Letter agrees. Good on the NEA for supporting these fine presses in their efforts to promote international literature to American audiences.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Who is Barack Obama?

By now most of us voters have acquainted ourselves with one Barack Obama. In addition to being a prominent U.S. Senator, Obama recently confirmed what has long been suspected: he will seek the 2008 Democratic nomination for president. What’s more, if elected, Obama would become the first African-American president.

But who is Barack Obama, and what’s with the funny name?

The child of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4th, 1961 and lived part of his childhood in Indonesia. He attended Columbia and Harvard universities, serving as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He went on to practice civil rights law in Illinois and to teach at the University of Chicago Law School.

Elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996, he served four years before campaigning unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives. After being reelected to the state senate in 2002, Obama participated in a television interview in which he criticized a possible war in Iraq and noted that he would have voted against the Iraq Resolution. Two years later, Obama ran for an open seat in the U.S. Senate, winning by a landslide vote of 70% in November of 2004. His visibility during the campaign was assisted by the keynote address he delivered at the Democratic National Convention. He has since garnered further national attention with the publication of two best-selling books, “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity Hope.”

Ever-ambitious, Obama has talked relentlessly about hope and the possibility of change. Since announcing his decision to seek the Democratic nomination for president, he has expressed his desire to “take our country back and change the fundamental nature of our politics.” If elected, Obama has pledged to address difficulties such as poor schools, economic instability, oil dependence, and to seek universal health care for Americans.

And there’s the war. While Obama was not yet elected to the Senate when Congress granted President Bush the power to go to war, he delivered a speech in 2002 in which he noted that Saddam Hussein was in fact not an immediate threat and that any invasion would result in an occupation plagued by unforeseeable costs and ramifications. He has since proposed a bill that would prevent Bush from increasing troop levels in Iraq and would bring U.S. forces home by March 31, 2008. Of course, such legislation will never become law while Bush is president.

Yet it is perhaps Obama’s ambition, more than anything, that has caused many to identify him as Senator Hillary Clinton’s chief rival. Clinton makes one tough adversary; in addition to the name-recognition factor, Clinton, who has been campaigning for years, begins with $11 million at her disposal and is attempting to raise $75 by 2008. Conversely, Obama is asking the Federal Election Committee to consider letting him take money from donors now and give it back later in order to keep his options open in terms of using the public financing system to support his campaign if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

However, one area where Obama may come out ahead of Clinton is the war. Clinton has not recanted her 2002 vote with which she authorized the invasion of Iraq, much to the skepticism of potential supporters. However, if she does recant her vote, she will likely be charged with indecisiveness, meaning she is generally between a rock and a hard place. She has likewise never proposed a specific plan for removing troops from Iraq.

Obama, commenting upon this, said “I know she’s stated that she thinks the war should end by the start of the next president’s first term. Beyond that, though, how she wants to accomplish that I’m not clear on.”

While only time will tell who has the right stuff to win the Democratic nomination, the possibility of the first African-American president and the first female president is certain to make for an exciting and potentially inspiring race.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Who said there's no money in it?

Illinois resident Rodney Jones was named winner of the 2007 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his collection Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin). The Tufts Award is given annually to a mid-career poet and comes with a $100,000 prize, one of the largest monetary awards available to U.S. poets.

Jones, who is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is an Alabama native who was also a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Elegy for the Southern Drawl (Houghton Mifflin). The author of six other books, Jones has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors.

We love our Carbondale neighbors and colleagues. Congratulations, Professor Jones.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction: The Life and Death of Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole. The name, like Marilyn or Madonna, is recognizable sans surname. Yet despite Anna Nicole’s seemingly iconic status, in the aftermath of her untimely passing, there are far more questions than answers. Ultimately, one wonders who was “Anna Nicole,” the person behind the constant facade and strange persona, presumably offered up for the benefit of the ever-present camera?

She was born Vickie Lynn Hogan on November 28, 1967 in Houston, Texas. Her mother, Virgie Mae Tabers, married her father, Donald Eugene Hogan, February 22, 1967; she was 15, he was 19. Her father then drifted off, leaving young Vickie Lynn to be raised by her mother and maternal aunt, Elaine. Virgie Mae would marry four more times between 1971 and 2000, setting an unfortunate precedent for her daughter.

The parallels between Vickie Lynn’s early life and her mother’s are apparent. Vickie was just 15 when she dropped out of her sophomore year at Mexia High School and got a job as a waitress at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken in Mexia, Texas. There she met Billy Wayne Smith, the restaurant’s cook and her future husband. They were married April 4, 1985, when she was 17 and he was 16. Their son, Daniel Wayne Smith, was born the following year.

One imagines their Chicken House Romance as the stuff of a forgotten Lifetime movie, or Tarantino-like strange at best, she casting enticing glances over the fryer and he grinning sheepishly. “He was sweet and he was so cute back there, cookin’ chicken,” she remarked in a 1993 interview for People magazine. A promising start, to be sure; but, like her parent’s tenuous union, the marriage wouldn’t last. The couple separated in 1987 and, just as Vickie Lynn’s own father had done, Billy Wayne disappeared, leaving Daniel fatherless. Determined to support her son, Vickie Lynn moved to Houston where she found work as a Wal-Mart check out girl and as a Red Lobster waitress before finally settling on a career as a stripper.

Yet even Vickie Lynn’s life pre-Anna Nicole is not without controversy, as her mother has implied that the facts may have been exaggerated and romanticized by Vickie in an effort to receive greater publicity. Virgie maintains that Vickie actually spent most of her young life in Houston, where she was born, rather than the much smaller town of Mexia, and that they were not “dirt poor” but rather middle-class.

Despite such discrepancies, it is clear that Vickie Lynn’s desire to provide for her son was not only very real but life-changing as well; her decision to become a stripper marked the beginning of her transformation to “Anna Nicole.” Taking off her clothes meant she would use her voluptuous body, all 5'11" 155 pounds of it, and striking features to get her where she wanted to go. Thus began her love affair with the camera and with one J. Howard Marshall, an elderly Texas oil tycoon and billionaire.

Marshall, born in 1905, graduated from Yale Law School where he later took a job as assistant professor. He worked briefly for the government during WWII before finally entering into the oil business. Although Marshall was business savvy, he was somewhat less cautious in his romantic endeavors. Married twice (his second wife died in 1991), Marshall carried on a decade-long affair with an eccentric Houston socialite, Jewell Diane “Lady” Walker, a woman best known for her gold nails (painted with real gold) and her stock of Rolls-Royces, with which she coordinated her attire. “Lady” died in 1992 at the age of 48, and Marshall began the process of trying to retrieve the nearly 6 million dollars worth of assets he had given to her as gifts over the years after learning she had been with other men during their courtship.

It was in 1991, shortly before his previous mistress died, that Marshall met Vickie Lynn in a Houston strip club and began a relationship. They would marry in June of 1994, amid much controversy. In the meantime, however, she sent pictures of herself to Playboy in response to a search launched by the magazine and was subsequently chosen by Hugh Hefner to grace the March 1992 cover (under the name Vickie Smith). A centerfold followed in May, and in 1993 she was named “Playmate of the Year,” at which time she finally became “Anna Nicole.”

Anna’s photos in Playboy garnered the attention of Guess? jeans advertisement executives who hired her to replace Claudia Schiffer in their ad campaign. The ads were black-and-white throwbacks to old Hollywood glamour and highlighted Anna Nicole’s resemblance to sex symbol Jane Mansfield. In short, they were absolutely stunning.

Smith herself commented at the time, “"I didn't know what Guess jeans were. I just shopped at Wal-Mart and Kmart and stuff like that."

But following this perhaps long-deserved run of good luck, Anna found herself embroiled in a 5 million dollar lawsuit against New York magazine in October of 1994. According to Smith, the magazine told her she was being photographed to represent an all-American-woman look. However, what they ultimately used was a photo which Smith claimed was taken for fun during a break from the actual shoot. The image ran as the cover and featured Smith in an unflattering pose, squatting in a short skirt and gnoshing on Cheez Doodles, under the headline “WHITE TRASH NATION.”

On the heels of this came the death of her second husband, J.Howard Marshall in August of 1995, and thus began her lengthy battle with Marshall’s son over his estate. To put it bluntly, he claimed she was a gold digger and deserved nothing, while Smith maintained that she loved her husband and that he had promised to look after her. Naturally, from the outside, it is hard to imagine what Anna saw in a man 62 years her senior, if not his billions. Yet Anna never wavered from her declaration of true love; it seemed she had convinced herself, if no one else, that she really did love Marshall. When he died, she celebrated his life with a memorial service that can only be described as a three ring circus. People magazine reported the following at the time:

“To begin with, the widow wore white – a dress with a plunging back and a neckline that plunged further. She also wore the white veil from her wedding. Her son, Daniel, 9 – from a brief teenage marriage to Billy Smith, a coworker at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken – wore a white tuxedo and matching patent-leather shoes and carried a small black dog. J. Howard Marshall II lay in a burnished wooden casket draped in white roses and lilies, and adorned with a gold – glitter banner reading "From Your Lady Love." Nearby decorations included two white teddy bears and a framed picture with a label identifying it as Mr. and Mrs. J. Howard Marshall II. As harp music played, some 30 mourners gathered. Conspicuously absent was anyone who appeared to have known Marshall during his first 89 years of life. “

A staffer further commented of Anna’s wishes that the service might have been even stranger:

“She wanted to take the coffin out to her ranch and set him up on the patio deck. I had to talk her out of it – I could just see him sliding into the swimming pool."

The year before her second husband died, Anna appeared in such well known films as The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, but her film career nevertheless failed. In 2002 she launched her own reality television series, The Anna Nicole Show, which was received poorly by critics but achieved a cult following among fans. But the show did nothing to reveal the person who was Anna Nicole (or was she Vickie Lynn?) in her private life, when the camera wasn’t rolling, because the camera was always rolling, and Anna was always acting, seeking attention for her often bizarre antics.

One imagines that if there is anyone who might have known Vickie/Anna (perhaps even better than she knew herself), it was her son, Daniel. He was, by all accounts, the love of her life and the person to whom she was closest. Known to be fiercely protective of his mother, Daniel Smith was perhaps the only individual who wasn’t with Anna Nicole because he wanted her money, and was thus the only person she felt she could trust.

Those who knew her best feel Anna Nicole never recovered from her son’s death, which itself is surrounded by nearly as much controversy as her own. Daniel was not known to have a problem with drugs. But why, then, was he taking two antidepressants in combination with methadone, a drug commonly used to ween heroin addicts? This is not a cocktail any doctor would in good conscience prescribe.

Furthermore, why did Anna Nicole commit herself to her lawyer and longtime friend Howard K. Stern in a ceremony just days after her son’s death? The relationship came as a surprise to many and has likewise produced suspicion that Stern took advantage of Smith during a time in which she was incredibly vulnerable. Some of these allegations stem from Smith’s family, from whom it should be noted she was estranged, and in particular from her mother, a woman Stern claims Anna “despised.” Anna herself claimed that she pursued Stern and that he was “the shy one.” Nevertheless, it seems Virgie Arthur made an eerie prediction regarding her daughter’s death. In an interview that took place immediately following Daniel’s death, Arthur told CNN’s Nancy Grace:

"There was only three people in that [hospital] room. ... Now if Howard Stern marries [Anna] and she ends up dead, then who does the money go [to]?"

On the other hand, the commitment ceremony that Smith and Stern held last September 28th is reportedly non-binding. This means that, barring any other arrangements that may have been made in a will (if said will even exists), Stern will not receive any inheritance, making Anna’s daughter her sole heir. Yet little Danielynn is currently in the care of Stern and his family and is at the center of a paternity dispute involving Smith’s former boyfriend, photographer Larry Birkhead, as well as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband, Prince Frederick von Anhalt, who now claims to have had a 10 year affair with Smith. Smith’s mother has reportedly joined forces with Birkhead, allegedly fearing for the safety of the child as long as she remains with Stern. However, despite the suspicion and “conspiracy theories,” the fact remains that foul play is not suspected in the death of Anna Nicole or her son.

What is clear here is that the death of Daniel changed Anna Nicole, and the pictures taken during her commitment ceremony illustrate her transformation. Ever-conscious of the camera, Anna Nicole rarely turned her gaze from the lens. Yet on her wedding day, she never faces the camera. Excessively tan rather than trademark porcelain, she hides behind giant false lashes and heavy makeup, looking further and further from herself.

Whether or not one loved Anna Nicole in life doesn’t seem to matter much now; I’m not sure I thought of her at all, yet I find myself haunted by the pictures that resonate with something I can’t quite place, like a word I’ve never heard, a name none of us ever knew.

R.I.P. Anna Nicole Smith, November 28, 1967 - February 8, 2007

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Branded and On Display

As I began a recent article posted to the UIUC web site, entitled “Multi-artist exhibition explores culture of consumption,” I was greeted with a bland statement of the obvious—one such as I often encounter when sifting through the endless stacks of essays penned by freshmen rhetoric students. Offering the brand of enlightenment typical of Fox News, the author proclaims:

“It’s no wonder Americans are heavily invested in a culture of consumption. As targets of ubiquitous corporate branding campaigns and marketing mania, we are bombarded 24/7 on all fronts – through every conceivable form of mass media and product packaging, at sporting and entertainment venues, and even lobbied by the apparel of friends and family.”

Hesitant, I nevertheless read on, expecting to be informed that it is also no wonder American children who spend hours in front of the television are growing fatter, lazier, and more ill-read by the day.

While the article itself leaves something to be desired, one hypothesizes that the exhibit it describes aims not to simply tell us what we already know, but to show us what we might otherwise miss. The beauty of art, in the words of novelist David Lodge, is that it is able “to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways.”

“Branded and on Display,” an exhibit at the U of I's Krannert Art Museum that might be termed a socio-economic commentary regarding our “culture of consumption,” features the work of UIUC’s own School of Art and Design faculty members Conrad Bakker and Laurie Hogin, along with the work of some 20 other artists from around the globe. The progressive showcase encompasses various forms of media, including photography, painting, sculpture, but also video, sound and installation.

“Branded” will remain on display through April 1st and “Commerce and Consumption” through May 13th. For more information, visit


If you need a little impetus to make the trip, consider this quote from Victor Shklovsky, who himself coined the term "defamiliarization:" "Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war...And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life."

From the exhibit, Hank Willis Thomas’ “Branded Head,” a digital C-print mounted to Plexiglas.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky

The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, edited by Robert Dale Parker (Univ. of Penn. Press), is now available for purchase. A milestone in American Indian literary history, this volume presents for the first time a complete collection of writings by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft or Bamewawagezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name, which means Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky). Schoolcraft, an author of stories and poems in English as well as a translator of traditional Ojibwe songs and texts, is one of the earliest known Native American literary writers. Samples of her poetry can be found in the current issue of 9L, thanks to Professor Parker and the University of Pennsylvania Press, and this new collection is a must-read for anyone interested in American literature and American Indian studies.