Monday, November 10, 2014

"Distant Music," Poems by Joan Annsfire

Distant Music
My poetry collection, Distant Music has finally arrived. The poems in this collection span over twenty years of my experience of trying to live fully and honestly. They encompass relationships, illness, travel and coming to terms with lesbian identity. But the main focus here is the time-limited nature of this journey. It is the thread that weaves these poems together to illuminate the complex, painful and wondrous nature of all our short and fragile lives.

Thanks so much to Mary Meriam and Risa Denenberg of Headmistress Press and the four reviewers whose blurbs were excerpted on the cover: Carolyn Boll, G.L.Morrison, Ann Tweedy and Julie R. Enszer.
Reviewer's Blurbs:

The dance of light and shadow unfolds across each and every page of Joan Annsfire’s Distant Music. Life and death, love and loss, and the shifting patterns of time and memory, hope and regret, all swell, surge and release as steps are taken, hands are held, a face is stroked, a life is lived and examined, and a poet is born again and again, poem by poem, word by word. The movement of a revolution. The revolution of a world. A world within. And without. Distant Music is a compelling and moving collection of poems that draws us forward from beginning to end. And beginning again.
—Carolyn Boll, poet/writer/dancer

Distant Music is no “carnival of disorder...seducing with a wild and discordant song.” There is order to these poems. They become a history, a feral memoir, the travel diary of a revolutionary. A travelogue navigating the white-waters of time through the sharp hazards of health and family and love. These are companionable poems (though sometime reckless companions) that invite you to swim naked or leap from bridges. They sing of geography’s immutability; memory’s flexibility and betrayals of the body; but ultimately these poems sing of survival. While they lay flowers at the side of the road for peoples and things that didn’t survive the journey, these are poems of passionate endurance.
—G.L. Morrison, author of Chiaroscuro Kisses

Distant Music is full of visceral, surprising images. If you’re brave enough to stay the course, Joan Annsfire will take you “joyriding on the rushing rapids,” through the “searing pain” of childhood and a stigmatized youth, through the speaker’s mother’s illness and death from cancer and then her own diagnosis and recovery, finally to land in “an older body, baggy, stretched and / soft as a favorite pair of flannel pajamas . . .” Annsfire’s is a world where “intense, immeasurable hunger” is an “elusive prize” in pursuit of which one must “scour the earth.” The reader who scours these pages will be enriched by Annsfire’s wisdom, her skilled use of metaphor and language, and her jarring honesty.
—Ann Tweedy, author of White Out and Beleaguered Oases

In Distant Music, Joan Annsfire’s poems dance with delicate intimacy and shout their angry love. A long-awaited collection from the widely published, Berkeley poet, Distant Music is filled with poems to savor and enjoy.
—Julie R. Enszer, author of Sisterhood, editor/publisher of Sinister Wisdom

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ebola: When Poverty Equals Death

Over 2,300 people in West Africa have succumbed to the Ebola epidemic and over 240 of them have been health care workers. Finally, Obama is sending in 3.000 military troops to help deal with the epidemic. It's too bad that the world stood by silently as this epidemic took hold. 

The nations of West Africa are extremely poor. Many “hospitals” there are simply places with beds and a few staffers who may or may not have even gone through medical training. Even before this epidemic, meals were brought in by family members, not provided by the facility.

Training in the handling of contagious disease is haphazard to non-existent but, that is not the reason for the tremendous loss of lives. The majority of deaths of care providers have been due to lack of equipment, understaffing and exhaustion, not negligence. There is not enough protective clothing or personnel to treat, or contain, the infected whose numbers are spiraling out of control.

Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal are not countries that attract the attention of the pharmaceutical drug industry. A majority of their citizens are black and live at a level of poverty unimaginable in the United States. They have no plumbing, running water and much cooking is done with open fires, not stoves. 

People lives can be saved. Research, that should have been done at the first sign of this new disease, is happening. But vaccines for ebola, like all of our medical care, are available only to those from wealthy nations. Two infected an American medical personnel, a doctor and a nurse, were flown out of Liberia and taken to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, quarantined and given the rare, expensive, experimental drug called Z-mapp, which helped them survive the disease.The infected of Africa, even doctors and nurses have been essentially on their own.

The pharmaceutical industry has no interest or desire to manufacture complex and costly vaccines when there is no financial incentive to do so. Poor Africans cannot lay down big money to cure themselves or their relatives. This would not be a profitable enterprise like Statin drugs for high cholesterol or Viagra for erectile dysfunction.

The brutally sad truth of the matter is that what drives the search for cures for diseases is this potential monetary windfall. Even if the big medical think tanks found, say, a cure for cancer, they would make sure that what was required would be that people take a certain amount of medication every day for the rest of their lives.This would provide them with continued financial security.

That insures the continued prosperity of Big Pharma. Stocks rise, doctors get samples and desperate people, without adequate health options, find some way to gather the financial resources required to save their lives.

Finding a cure for Ebola offers none of these remunerations. If it did, the epidemic would have been halted in its tracks before it spiraled out of control. Instead, we all are forced to witness the way the so-called developed nations of the first world allow fellow citizens in Africa to be ravaged by a merciless disease!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Where Ferguson and Occupy Meet...

I watched the coverage of the Ferguson uprising on MSNBC and a lot of what I saw the police doing looked disturbingly familiar to the police riots I experienced when I participated in Occupy Oakland. There were flash-bang grenades, bean-bag projectiles, rubber bullets and plenty of tear gas. The sound cannons were new “toys,”  for our militarized boys in blue.

When I was arrested, as part of a mass arrest in 1991 following the Rodney King excessive police force incident, the cops had little access to all this weaponry. They simply surrounded around the 400 people peacefully participating in the protest, handcuffed us and hauled us away. Today what cops are engaged in is more like a live staging of World of Warcraft.

Let me state unequivocally that racism plays a huge role in out-of-control policing in this country. There exists a rampant, unbridled fear of young, black males in our society. Beyond that, the government and its enforcement arm are tremendously afraid of resistance of any kind and invest everything they have in crushing rebellions before they can spread and take hold. This has been of utmost importance since the economic collapse of 2008.

Sure, the NSA and its defenders will say that heightened security dates back to the September 11th attacks of 2001. But why then has the collection of metadata increased to a loud crescendo at this point in time. Why are racism and all forms of ethnic hatred being constantly and continually promoted just as labor unions, job security and workers’ rights and the right to a living wage are being hammered into non-existence?

It's a simple divide and conquer tactic to perpetuate capitalism. The existence of a cheap, disposable underclass is the foundation that buttresses the wealth of the one percent. Those in power are especially afraid of young, black males but they are afraid of all of us. They know they are sapping our life-blood both as low-wage workers and as an unemployed poverty class.With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the USA is now rounding up folks who can't pay their bills, thus reinstituting debtors' prisons. Economic inequality here has reached an all-time high and that's not going to change anytime soon. The bottom line is:  as long as WE are at each other’s throats, THEY are safe. The second we begin to rise up, they beat us down with ten times the force required to do so.

Racism is a real problem but it is not a "black" issue. It is an American issue that affects all of us. “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” That quote is from Ben Franklin at the signing of the declaration of independence. And he wasn’t including women, everyone considered "non-white," immigrants, non-landowners and a whole host of others. But he still has a point. We can all learn from his mistakes and try to do it right this time!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Suicide / Survival

Robin Williams’ suicide is a devastating waste and loss. The shock waves reverberating around the world seem out of proportion for one comedian however brilliant, poignant and universally respected and loved.

This is a reaction to the big question that if someone like Robin Williams could end his life, how can the rest of us poor fools ever manage to trudge on? If wealth, fame and universal adoration aren’t strong enough reasons to compel someone to stay here on earth, what does that say about all our struggles? It compells us to imagine a depth of despair that is truly terrifying. It speaks to the immense difficulty of this life that someone can go against every survival instinct as opposed to just waiting for inevitable, eventual death, an experience guaranteed to every one of us.  

Death in our culture is very scary. In my sixth decade, I currently see more friends taken down against their will than because of it. That was not always the case. I’ve had friends and family members and friends who’ve ended their lives. My grandmother took pills. my high school friend, Jill hung herself with her knee socks when we were in our early twenties. In those years, my friend Liz stole her uncle’s gun and shot herself in the head. As one of those they left behind, I felt grief was overwhelmed by a sense of failure.What could I have done or said that might have made a difference? Couldn't I have talked them into one more pizza, one more movie?

Yet, I have certainly gone through periods in my life when I’ve considered suicide as an option. Fortunately, there is a vast abyss between thought and action. Taking your own life is a violent act that requires a high level of desperation as well as commitment. It demands totally abandoning the idea that things will improve, that tomorrow will be that proverbial new day.

The tragedy of suicide is that violence is perpetrated not only on the departee but on the survivors. I blame my mother leaving me because of ovarian cancer, but if it had been her decision to go it would have made my anger that much stronger. We all want to debrief with the dead but, except for dreams and visions, they are no longer available to us. Anger, frustration and fear are the collateral damage that suicide leaves in its wake.

So grieve for Robin Williams and for everyone who couldn’t bear to wait around for the grim reaper and instead took things into their own hands.It’s okay to mourn. It’s okay to be pissed off. But the best outcome is to support the people you care about right now and make sure each one of them can keep on keepin’ on!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Israeli Government is not the Jewish People

By the time I was born, the Second World War was over and Israel was already a fact. I have been an Anti-Zionist since the seventies when Jews like me were all termed “self-hating.” I do not confuse supporting the struggles of the Palestinian people with prejudice against Jews which is erroneously termed Anti-Semitism, since all people of Middle-Eastern descent are Semites. 

I thoroughly and totally condemn the brutality of the Israeli regime. I despise the whole premise of a religious versus a secular state and I do not think that a person expressing Anti-Israel sentiment necessarily implies will towards Jewish people. Yes, I fervently wish my relatives in Europe had taken Germany instead of Palestine, that the railroad tracks to Auschwitz had been bombed, that the ships taking Jewish refugees to the USA had not been turned away. But those things happened and, just as we are now dealing with the ramifications of slavery, the legacy of the brutal oppression of Jews has left the world with an out-of control “Jewish homeland.”

That having been said, I would like to address something else. The blog entry I wanted to publish this week was about the ancient synagogue and adjoining Jewish Museum in Rhodes, Greece. I am delaying that entry and writing this one because I don’t believe anything about Jewish history would be well-received right now and I find that fact, in and of itself, to be a misguided, biased reaction.

As a Jew, I would like to be proud of my ancestors the way that Italian, Irish, Black, Native American and all other minorities are of theirs. I should be able to post historical articles about my relatives without fearing misinterpretation or worse. Jews are not responsible for each other’s behavior anymore than other members of minority groups are. And the actions of the Israeli government don’t represent the will of the Israeli people just as the actions of the US government, don’t represent our will. But getting carried away with thoughtless generalizations of an entire group of people is destructive and counter-productive.

Here is an example of the problem. A longtime, leftist comrade recently, and I believe inadvertently, posted an article about the violence against the people of Gaza that came directly from a right-wing, Neo-Nazi, propaganda website. This is not okay! Read what you post before you hit that button! Here are some things to watch out for so you don’t repeat this mistake: references to the Talmud or publications like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The use of Yiddish words like “goyim,” concepts like, “Jewish blood,” the substitution of the word, Jews for the word, Israelis and frankly, just plain, nasty, stereotyping.

It is absolutely imperative that we be as critical of Israel as we are of other imperialist, warmongering countries. But, just as drones and smart-bombs turn out to be not all that targeted or smart, we must be mindful of the way we categorize people and precisely how we utilize our words. The keyboard is mightier than the sword! The end result, peace, is vitally important, but so is what we do on that journey to get there. If we are sloppy and compromise our ethics to reach this goal, we will have effectively thrown out the baby with the bathwater!

Monday, July 28, 2014

"Tuvalet" Customs in Turkey

Squat Turkish Toilet
Toilet culture interests me. Perhaps because I'm an older woman with an undersized bladder. Or maybe it's just like the study of anything else, it tells a lot about the people. As in other third world countries, Turkish city streets and bus stations have public bathrooms that, for a small price, usually around the equivalent of 50 cents, a Turk or a tourist can pay for a spray or a slightly longer stay. 

I used to find this money exchange objectionable because it winds up being a tax of sorts on women and older folks, in particular. But, I concluded, it’s not all that expensive and is preferable to having no access at all, like in the majority of cities in the United States.

The pay toilet in Turkey has evolved. It used to be that a patron would have to state her/his intention at the door and defecating was charged at a higher rate than urinating. This proved problematic on many levels. First it was embarassing. Second, one can not always be accurate with these predictions. Could you get some money back if your assessment turned out to involve a bit of wishful thinking? And third, of course there was a huge language barrier for non-Turkish speakers. 

Two Flushes, Large and Small
So now, one rate covers any and all outcomes. As for the commodes themselves, most groups of pay toilets will have at least one “western-style” unit. Newer venues tend to be all of this variety. Turkish toilets of the "eastern style" are flat on the floor, a porcelain bowl in the ground with places on either side for the feet. You must squat to use them.

In Islamic law, males are encouraged to squat rather than just spray, partly because it's more hygenic, but also because there is a toilet ritual that involves not facing Mecca. For women, it’s a little more complicated. Pulling down underwear and pants and successfully peeing without getting anything else wet takes a bit of practice. Maybe a skirt would be easier. But either way, I can't imagine attempting anything more serious than urination under these circumstances.

The western-style toilets in Turkey, however, have become quite advanced. Like the ones in Europe and, increasingly in the States as well, they have two flushes: a smaller button for number one emissions and a larger for number 2, options that are very water conservation-minded and efficient. Since I've been back in the USA I have noticed more of this divided flush thing happening, often with an up or down option.

Strategically-Placed Spray Valve
The other thing that I discovered, by happy accident, about the Turkish toilet is that a valve control on the lower right side of the toilet can be turned on with interesting results. What a surprise it was to recieve an expertly directed anal-wash by simply turning this faucet. This butt-hole bidet evolved partly as a paper-saving device. It shows that the Turks are indeed a fastidious people. I would love to purchase one of these commodes for use in my home.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Separate Societies: Gender in Turkey

Turkish Men Outside a Cafe
The men in Turkey sit in cafes, play dominoes, smoke and converse intensely. To look at two men involved in such a connection, you would swear they were gay. The men are predominantly the folks we dealt with, they run the great majority of restaurants, pensions and shops. Some hotels have women at the front desk and you may find a shopkeeper or two but the overwhelming percentage of workers are male.

It is hard to make genuine connections in a country where you don't speak any of the native language but the following information is based solely on personal observation and experience.

Some restaurants are "family" places which cater more to women and children. Bars and places that serve raki (an alcoholic beverage) and other alcoholic drinks are men's domain. As foreign women, we were treated as honorary men and welcomed almost everywhere. The one exception was mosques, where we had to cover as Turkish women do, although sometimes at mosques I passed for male, in which case covering did not apply.

The men are good friends with one another and women are very peripheral to this picture. In the raki restaurant in Izmir, we saw intense, animated talking male duos and groups. On a boat trip in Kas, we met four Turkish college students, in two heterosexual couples. The men spoke to us in English. The women didn't speak to us. During the entire trip, the two male friends talked non-stop. The women sat at the far ends of the group and were silent. At swim stops, in the water, we occasionally heard them giggle or speak softly.

At one point when we tired of hearing the guys hold forth, we descended to the lower deck where we found one of their two women friends who had perhaps also tired of listening. She had ordered a beer, was smoking a cigarette and was actively communicating on her smartphone.

We visited a private home in Pamukkale. The guy who worked at our hotel drove us to his uncle's place. We sat on a beautiful carpeted porch overlooking the dry, cactus and scrub-speckeled mountains. A welcome cool breeze was blowing. The uncle's wife wore a scarf and spoke no English. She smiled and brought us all tea and almond cookies which she did not serve herself. I noticed that inside she removed her headscarf, but repositioned it when she came back to the group. Mostly, the two men spoke Turkish with each other and Deborah and I did the same in English.

In Izmir, we inadvertently booked a hotel in the red light district which was conveniently located between the bus and the train station. It was a lively neighborhood with reasonably priced bars and restaurants and not at all scary. Next to our hotel was a brothel. The women in the open front of the place wore tiny, gold lame bikinis. One had died blonde hair and loads of interesting, tribal style tattoos. I smiled at her warmly and she smiled back, surprised.

We sat on the chairs outside the front of our hotel. It had been a sizzlingly hot day, so many people, read "men," were  sitting out on the street too. A man from the brothel came over to me and asked in broken English, "Do you want to be with sister?" I laughed and told him we were staying in this hotel and just getting some air but it was clear that I could have purchased some face (or other bodily part) time with the blonde if that's what I'd desired.

Later that evening the police were called to the place because a screaming fight broke out between one of the girls and a john. She was going after him and definitely landed a few punches. Most of the men on the street stepped in to intervene and try to keep them apart. 

The Secret Sisterhood
Turkey is a world of whores and madonnas, similar to the USA of the sixties before the women's movement. It is a place of great warmth and compassion but also a country plagued by gender division and women's second-class status. The rate of domestic violence against women is higher in Turkey than anywhere else in Europe. Islamic fundamentalism is growing and I saw many more covered women this trip than when I visited in 2002. At that juncture, it was illegal for women to wear their scarves in universities or government buildings.

Now, even the Prime Minister's wife is covered. It was heartbreaking for me to see these women wearing headscarves, long sleeves, and loose-fitting black coats over their clothes in temperatures that often reached the high nineties and low hundreds. In general, these women were sweet to us and we often went to them for directions. We joked that they ran a secret sisterhood, and whenever we had the opportunity to patronize a business that they ran, bakeries often fell in this category, we did. These interractions made us feel cared for and welcomed in a way in which the male-run establishments could not equal.