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FEBR UARY 2012


Buried Letter Press February 2012 Š Buried Letter Press 2011-2012 Cover design by Matthew C. Mackey

Buried Letter Press Akron, Ohio


Buried Letter Press Proper noun: 1. the particular magazine dedicated to innovative and quality criticism of art in all of its various forms, such as literature, music, film and theater, visual art, etc. 2. a provision of encouragement to artists and patrons worldwide.


FEBRUARY ISSUE 2012 The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth by SLM Young HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC #4 Facebook by Nathan Floom Why I’m Trying Not to be a Snob About Fiction by: Kirsten Clodfelter The (non) Art of Love by Will Felix Revision or Spontaneity? by Brian R. Young Album of Poems Presents a Strong Lead Vocal: A Review of Jericho Brown’s Please (New Issues, 2008) by Kelcy Wilburn Cultural Nostalgia and the Art of Making Films by Meredith King Comic Books Don’t Need You to Defend Them by Jon Judy


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The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth by SLM Young The first thing I remember learning in my introductory creative nonfiction course is that memory is fallible. I’d like for my reader to look very closely at that sentence—“the first thing I remember” does not mean that it was the first thing taught in the course, nor does it mean that this was actually the first thing I learned in the course. What it means is simple. This is my memory, being fallible, just as the lesson indicates. I cannot tell you what happened on the first day of class, nor can I tell you on what day of the semester I learned the above lesson. I suppose I could contact the professor, ask him if he keeps his lesson plans, ask him to check and see if this particular lesson was meant to be taught on a particular day, and then report to you, Reader, on what day this lesson was taught. This still wouldn’t provide you necessarily with the day I learned the lesson because—the truth is—I might not have learned it the first time I heard it. And once all of that work had been done to try to verify a date, what would be the point? Does it matter to anything when I learned this lesson? Or does it matter, simply, that I learned it? The above example illustrates what I believe to be one of the problems in creative nonfiction, particularly memoir. Readers of memoir do so because they want a story that illuminates something important. We’ll call this “Truth.” Readers who want to know that facts of a story can read journalism, but in reading journalism, you don’t come to any grand realizations; you find out what happened. Memoir isn’t about what happened; it is about how what happened has shaped the person it happened to. In 2003, Vivian Gornick, highly respected writer of creative nonfiction, gave a speech at Goucher College, which ended in extraordinary controversy. According to a report in Salon written by Terry Greene Sterling, Gornick “confessed” that she had invented scenes, used composite characters, and perhaps the most shocking thing of all, admitted that she believed memoir to fall under the heading of personal narrative rather than that of journalism. And I suppose if I had not studied creative nonfiction, this may all be very shocking. I should probably admit before I write any further that I studied under Vivian Gornick during graduate school, and so am likely biased to her view of memoir. In her response to the Salon article, she writes: A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it


has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story — to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters. That is, the interpretation of the events is what is important, not the events themselves. Does this mean that creative nonfiction writers can, should, or are allowed to lie, to make things up? Well, simply, no, but Truth isn’t simply about the difference between a truth and a lie. We are, don’t forget, trying to create art. We are not reporters, detailing events. We don’t walk around with a video camera over our shoulder, recording every event as it happens, and even if we did, that still wouldn’t be Truth. It would be a record of events that happened and the truth of those events would rely on the interpretation of the viewer watching them. Maureen Corrigan responded to Gornick’s comments both on “Fresh Air” on NPR and in Salon, where she stated that there “is the sense of betrayal felt by a reader who’s been encouraged to believe that a particular book is trying to be faithful to what actually happened and who then subsequently learns otherwise.” But it seems to me that this focus on “what actually happened” is exactly the problem. Does it matter that writers of creative nonfiction be true to the story and not make things up? Of course. I don’t think anyone—and by anyone I mean, anyone who is ethical— would disagree, but “what happened” seems to me the least of concerns in terms of coming to and realizing the truth of reality. We interpret others’ actions and words, and in doing so, we assume a position. My guess is that as humans, we are often wrong in our assumptions of what others are thinking when they say or do something, but often in the course of autobiographical writing, we assume to know these things. We record them in our writing. Does this make us untrustworthy? Yes and no. If, for example, my mother called me her perfect baby, and I assumed that she would only love me so long as she believed I was perfect, then that assumption would make me react, behave, think, and feel in a particular way. This would be true despite the actual meaning behind my mother’s words. So, in a way, no, these assumptions do not make us dishonest. On the other hand, I would suggest that when writers seem to come to easy answers about why and how, and have perfectly-formed assessments of exactly why and how, this is dishonest. Nothing in life is so simple. We often don’t know the reasons, even if we believe we know the reasons. I think the problem of Truth in memoir is less about compressing time or events or characters, and more about people writing as if they have everything figured out. Isn’t this the greater lie? Isn’t this far more dishonest, in terms of Truth, than reordering a few events for reader ease? I am not a journalist. I do not write reports of things that happened. Do I have to include everything that happened to explain to an audience the point I am trying to illustrate? I think it would be very dull reading indeed if that were the standard by which we had to write memoir. Memoirists compose a text, a journey for their readers to follow. They make artistic choices as to what details to include and what to leave out, based on the Truth they want to explore. Some critics would claim these choices are dishonest; I would claim they are necessary to art. When a reader picks up a newspaper, he expects the events to be recorded and presented in a particular way. It would seem naive for readers of memoir to believe the purpose of the piece they


are reading is to present fact. It’s not. And I don’t think it should be. In his essay, “Occasional Desire: On the Essay and the Memoir,” David Lazar writes, “no matter what kind of literary nonfiction, the facts are never the primary importance of the work. Facts are self-sufficient. They don’t need literature. It is the interpretation of fact that all literary nonfiction is based on.” I am of the school that believes when I write nonfiction, I make a contract with my reader that I am—to the best of my ability—writing the truth. I agree with Kathryn Harrison when she writes, “I try honorably to remember things as they really were, but . . .” The fact that this “but” exists seems to be the difficulty; the “but” is the context, which makes us remember how we remember. Some critics believe that if you cannot verify, then you shouldn’t write it, which means that Kathryn Harrison, for one, wouldn’t be “allowed” to write memoir since there is no one left living from her childhood. No one can verify the accuracy of her memories. And what of memories that are contested among family members, can we never write about things that are remembered differently? Consider, too, that we often remember things the way we want to remember them. Harrison goes on to write that “If biology, chemistry, and psychiatry can agree on anything, it is that memories are not received but created. What’s more, they’re subject to automatic, unavoidable revision.” Isn’t this the unavoidable Truth, that memory is malleable? We remember something, and are compelled to write about it, and the action of writing it down has made that version of the memory indelible, and inevitably, the writing of the memory has changed something about how you feel about the event, and that feeling will remain until some experience makes you understand the event in a different context, and then suddenly the memory will be different, and so your first recounting of it will seem somehow wrong, or unfinished, or too sweet, or too cruel. Has the event changed? Has the memory changed? Or is it simply that our interpretation of one or the other or both has changed? The Truth is that we have changed, and isn’t this the point? I won’t pretend to know why every writer writes, but I will go out on a limb to assume that a good many writers put pen to paper in order to enact change, to learn and discover something in the process, and take their readers along in that process of discovery. This is the Truth we all want to find. Is it possible, or necessary, or even desirable to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in creative nonfiction? I suppose it depends on what you mean by Truth.


HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC #4 Facebook by Nathan Floom Have we met before? I’m not sure. Maybe it was at that thing awhile back? I saw you by the beer cooler at what’s-his-name’s place? Did we? I forgot your name. Not sure how you got mine. We are friends now. I saw the notification pop up and YOU were there. Whoever you are. That person, from that thing, on the same e-mail list or something… Turns out we both like the movie “Fight Club.” I can only be friends with people who enjoy “Fight Club.” The first rule of fight club is…. You poked me. We did not do this in public when we were at this thing and you must have seen me but not asked my name. Not even introduced yourself. Your poke makes me cry out in the surprise of the sharp jab. I don’t think it’s the other appendage that you can poke people with…is it? But you did it. You poked me. And of course, socially speaking it is only right, as best friends who love “Fight Club” together, to poke you back. Return the favor. I send the poke. I wait. Meanwhile I look through your pictures. I want to figure out where you come from. What you were like in the big social timeline of your life. What year were you born? Are you a bastard child? My mom and dad got married because of me, divorced because of each other. Maybe we have that in common along with “Fight Club.” I see pictures of old girlfriends, old boyfriends here in the last few years. This is okay with me. I like to have open friends. I find a picture where you’re bonging that beer back in 2007 at some high school party where we all thought that someday we would be special and grow up and people would like us. Soon after that picture I see the one where you are walking across the stage in the black cap and gown, the tassel on your head. We’re both educated people. We have that in common too. Let’s watch “Fight Club” sometime? I refresh the page. You have poked me again. We would not do this in public. Or maybe we would. Perhaps you deserve it. Your status talks about how horrible your day was. As if in some way, it is important that I understand your day did not go as well as you would have liked it too. I hover over the “poke” button, contemplating if this should really continue. Wondering if you know who I really am. If we meet in person, maybe someday, it will be great. We will see each


other, and know that in the big scheme of things you don’t look like you do in the profile picture because that is what you want people to see. In real life, you see things for exactly what they are. Good thing we have “Fight Club” in common.


Why I’m Trying Not to be a Snob About Fiction By: Kirsten Clodfelter A few years ago (mostly by accident, I swear!) I kind of became a snob. I was in my very early twenties and getting my Master’s degree, and this combination made me feel like I had some authority on things, as if my cultivated opinion was pretty important. I endured the death of a parent at a young age as well as a few other complicated experiences early in my life, so I wouldn’t exactly say that I was sheltered, but after graduate school I spent a little bit of time in the “real” world and realized pretty quickly that I didn’t actually know jack shit about almost anything. I hold a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, and because I’ve devoted almost my entire postsecondary education to reading and studying literature, it was extremely easy to become stuck-up about what other people were reading, about what someone else could or could not say was “good.” I was a hypocrite right from the beginning, but it took me some time to see it. Here’s an example: I think Chopin and Etta James and The National are music gold—an important part of the cannon and full of talent and skill, but I will also happily listen to Britany Spears, Lady Gaga, and yes, even Ke$ha for hours on end without apology. For some reason, it’s never been a problem to own up to the fact that I enjoy listening to a musician, if we can even call her that, with a dollar sign in her name. Pop music is pop for a reason—it’s popular. That’s the whole point. It relies on specific characteristics that make it pleasing to listen to: catchy, simple melodies, noticeable rhythm, and a strong chorus, and I fall for it all (pardon this tired cliché) hook, line, and sinker. And maybe I’d feel differently if I had once studied at Julliard or Oberlin, or if I held a Master’s degree in music theory, or even if I had ever skillfully played a single instrument during my lifetime. And this difference, maybe, is why I will argue all day that there is nothing wrong with listening to Miley Cyrus (I know, and I’m sorry, but something about “Party in the USA” just feels adorable to me) as long as I’m not claiming she’s equally as talented as Nina Simone, but I will still cringe reflexively every single time I hear someone utter the name Dan Brown. My father runs his own delivery business and spends 25+ hours each week in the car, where his favorite way to pass the time is to listen to audio books. He “reads,” on average, a book each week, which means that over the last ten years or so, he’s read more books than I will have read probably even ten years from now, and I’m saying that as someone who not only devoted seven years of undergraduate and graduate study to literature and writing, but also as someone who now teaches it. (Hey, so, have I mentioned yet that I have a Master’s degree?) But when my father dutifully asks me to name my five favorite authors, and I think carefully before I tell him Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Ben Percy, Pam Houston, and Margot Singer, he answers, “Who?” (And I’m not sure I can blame him—when I checked, only Russell’s Swamplandia! and Houston’s Sight Houndwere available in audio format at my own local library.) My father loves Patrick Robinson, who writes nautical thrillers, Robert D. Parker’s detective


and western novels, and Jan Karon, author of the Mitford series about a small-town preacher. I groan when he tells me this, but who am I, really, to decide in what another person should take pleasure? His response is not uncommon. When I share news about the authors I love and admire with friends outside of my small literary community, like that several years ago at AWP I got to have dinner with Richard Bausch, or that Ben Percy bought me a beer after he did a reading during the Fall for the Book Festival, or that I spent a month studying under Stuart Dybek as a participant in the Prague Summer Program, or that Alan Cheuse was my thesis direction during my time at George Mason, I get blank stares. (Please note that this excessive name-dropping is a clear indicator that while I’m trying to recover from my snobbery, I’m just not quite there yet…) In my reality, this news translates to something awesome, like if someone told me they got to hang out with Joseph Gordon Levitt or that they met Joel McHale. To others, though, not so much. I need to be okay with that. If someone wants to read Jodi Picoult, I’m not going to begrudge them that. Good for them for at least reading. (I realize that this still sounds pretty snobby. Like I said, I’m working on it.) And yes, it would be great if they were reading the literary authors that I like (not because I like them, but because they’re significant and should be read), but my dad probably still wishes I’d take up golf, and I’m not a lesser person for not knowing the difference between Phil Mickelson and Rocco Mediate. I adjunct at a community college in Louisville, where I teach a combination of composition and developmental English classes. I try to expose my students to as many great writers as I can get my hands on, and I look for the ones who I think will get their attention. I appreciate Shakespeare’s important place in the literary cannon, but I don’t think he’s an appropriate medium for reaching the majority of freshman undergraduates about writing. Instead, I opt for what might be more immediately relatable and engaging, essays by Michael Chabon, stories by Amy Hempel or Richard Bausch, lots of flash fiction. To help pay the bills, I also teach two classes each quarter at a for-profit school. Here, my curriculum is mine to plan but the required novel is chosen for me. It is always one of three books by Mitch Albom. When I was first teaching this class, I made the mistake of telling my students that I hadn’t chosen the book and that I hated it. Some of them looked crushed. A few of my students, many of whom are second-career or returning adults, confided that this was the first book they had read in more than a decade. One student told me this was the first book he had finished in his life. Ever. What an asshole I was. Now, I’m more careful. I explain that I don’t find Mitch Albom to be especially teachable because of how straight-forward his writing is, and I ask my students to look at it alongside other, more complex writing in order to aid the development of their analytical and critical-thinking skills. I have my own guilty pleasures in reading. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for most of my life, and even though I agree that his writing is at times formulaic, I think there are plenty of gems buried in his many novels, particularly Hearts of Atlantis. I was pleased to see him earn what I feel was a much deserved mention on the NYT list of 100 Notable Books for his fifty-first (or fifty-second, by theNYT’s count) book in 2011. And although it’s certainly not without its lines of corny dialogue,


Frank Herbert’s Dune is an incredible and impressive work of science fiction. As a young(ish) adult, these books helped encourage my love of reading and storytelling just as much as did Lois Lowry and Francesca Lia Block. In March, my boyfriend and I are expecting our first child. I’ll encourage her to read the lauded YA books from my own teenage years, Number the Stars andBridge to Terabithia, along with things like Harry Potter, if any of that will even still be relevant a decade or more from now. But when she also gets excited about whoever the equivalent of Stephanie Myer will be twelve or fifteen years from now, I won’t make her feel badly about it. Instead, maybe that will provide me with an opportunity to discuss with her the merits and shortcomings of both—where each succeeds or doesn’t in terms of quality, entertainment, aesthetics, and poignancy. Most likely, I’ll just be grateful that she’s spending her time reading instead of watching reality TV. KOTTABOS


The (non) Art of Love by Will Felix For centuries, artists of all kinds have used love’s powerful forces as their muse. However, as a painter on indefinite sabbatical after an exhibit focused on the end of my battles with the conceptualization of love, I contend that, once found or totally lost by the artist, love ceases to be a potent influence on their body of work. When you look at the many major works of art which deal with love: think Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Pygmalion and Galatea” from 1890, or Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” from 1908, or Paul Gauguin’s “Nevermore” from 1897… they all seem to have something in common. They are either about the longing for a love, or the establishment of said love, or about the loss. Seldom is it about the process of loving, for this process is something that is best lived, not observed. Throughout my artistic career, my works have reflected thoughts on the subject of love: the peculiar curiosities, the complexities of expression, and even the struggles with sexuality within the confines of relationships. In short, much of which becomes expressed on canvas is the question of how we define these aspects. Love, when in full bloom, defines itself. You are in the midst of feeling and enjoying the presence of the “thing” that it is. Love is an answer; thus, the need to express its “question” is relatively moot. Popular wisdom argues that the best love songs are written by the broken hearted. And here again, as you wade through your memory of recent pop culture, you’re likely to stop on the classic ballads of courtship, full of promises and expectations; or you will reluctantly be reminded of the songs you played over and over after a breakup. (Phil Collins made a fortune on songs like “I Don’t Care Anymore”.) How many hits though can you think of that celebrate an ongoing great relationship? I’m sure there are a few here and there, but they aren’t likely to be on the forefront of your memory, either through the scarcity of output, or they lack of poignancy given to the sadder subjects. It may well be that the artists lose a certain spark once they have achieved their goals: that the driving force of their oeuvre may well have been their desire to succeed overall, and succeed in love in particular. For what would be the reason for a man to create a painting of a woman he already can be with in person? Or why would the musician need to write a song for a love that is actively reciprocated? When you think of artists that seem to buck the trend of “fading out artistically” once they were famous, one name quickly comes to mind: Picasso. And when you examine how his life transpired, one can observe that he continuously embraced the chaos in his personal life. Once established with one lover, he started to pursue another, and almost relished pitting the women against one another, feeding his creative juices in the process. The quarrels between Marie{Previous page: “Post Romantic Stress Disorder” by Will Felix}


Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar are the epitome of this, as illustrated in the well-titled biopic “Surviving Picasso.” I should clarify what I mean by loss of love, such as the muse of Phil Collins’ oeuvre – and the despair that an artist may feel if they no longer believe in love itself. Even at their most heartwrenching moments, as long as there is still a modicum of belief that love may spring again, the artist may continue to express frustrations and hope. However, once all hope is lost, there may no longer be a spark left: no words or visions to share with the populace or the voice inside. At this point the artist may turn away from the craft or from life altogether. With this perspective, you might revisit the drug-infused expirations of many creative geniuses over the years. Basquiat? Cobain? Perhaps it wasn’t just the unhealthy reliance on illicit substances, but an eventual loss in the belief that love is attainable for them. Not all situations fit within these parameters, and in my own experience, it took some major introspection and a change of lifestyle to escape the potentially dangerous effects of losing belief in love. The “two” series in 2011, my last solo art exhibit, faced the realities of many of the ongoing hopes and ideals that drove my need to create. During the process, it became clear that those “drivers,” while instinctive after years of use, were no longer relevant in my life. I made the conscious decision to face these elements in my final works, whereas most creative people (or people in general) do not. In the piece “A Cliché Manifested” I confront the notion that love itself can be represented with the image without making an objective caricature of the act. The word “love” is repeated over and over until it becomes a flat echo, detached from any actual feeling that the word itself might convey. “Post-Romantic Stress Disorder” exposes the fraud in continuously using the nude as some indicator of romantic bliss, purposefully aping Matisse’s work (think “La Danse”) and juxtaposing the aspect of my own continuing metaphors… the redhead was a reoccurring allegory that was sometimes seen as more than that in my personal life; in this piece the red “hair” also serves as fire that is burning the landscape. So am I saying that love is no longer a driving force in my work? I guess the answer is yes. After that show, I have decided to take an indefinite leave from the art scene, content with the fact that I have said what I wanted to say, for now. And as we look at the works that are cherished as symbols of love, we are faced with the notion that as a society, we seem to celebrate the search, and the attainment… and the loss… but once actual love is found, or the belief in it is lost, the picture isn’t as clear.


Revision or Spontaneity? by Brian R. Young Anis Shivani’s modestly titled essay “The MFA/Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing” describes the “outcome” in terms of product from these places as “choked with metaphors… and overwritten in that peculiarly self-conscious writerly style.” He attributes this to the “fetish of constant revision” where “apprentices, journeymen, and masters these days exaggerate the number of drafts they wrote before daring to publish a book (Twenty! Fifty! A hundred!). This is cause for bragging rights; the more drafts, the more committed the writer declares himself to the execution of craft.” He complains that “the journeyman… must not deviate from these standards” because “there is an infinitely intricate system of withholding rewards and recognition from deviants” and “the master always retains the right of correction… to guarantee quality.” Shivani’s distaste for extensive revision reminds me of a blog that I enjoy reading by Keith Montesano titled “First Book Interviews” wherein the first and second questions that the interviewer asks the newly published authors are “How often had you sent out [Manuscript Title] before it was chosen as the winner of [First Book Poetry Contest Prize]” and “Tell me about the title. Had it always been [Such-And-Such]? Did it go through any other changes?” and the fourth question is “What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?” Presumably the authors are free to answer “Only once,” “Yes; No,” and “One,” but, as most likely would not surprise either Shivani or those he criticizes, the authors recount a litany of revisions and alterations, with the obvious pride-in-workmanship that one familiar with the MFA System’s emphasis on craft would expect. And why shouldn’t the newly published be proud of the hard work and dedication that has led to their often long-awaited success in rising to the top of the cutthroat contest system? Shivani looks to the larger context of a profitable system that is concerned with its own perpetuation and growth, suggesting that “[t]he guild can keep forever expanding, as long as revision keeps the upper hand,” while maintaining that “genius is inspirational, it strikes when we don’t expect it, it is limited to the rare elect.” If genius serves as the standard by which the work of aspiring writers is measured, it could discourage the large pool of paying applicants that sustain both the presses and the writing programs that have come to depend on them, amongst what seems to be an ever-increasing indifference from the larger public. I find it difficult to understand how Shivani can criticize the MFA system as “undemocratic” when he seems to be suggesting that the antidote is the genius of the “rare elect” rather than craft, which he implies anyone who is sufficiently dedicated can master. (Although I really can’t agree that


a deep and non-formulaic attention to craft when it comes to a creative form is something that can exist without artistic talent.) I’d like to consider for a moment what exactly it is that he’s advocating: if aspiring writers were to give up on what Shivani claims is an exploitative and disingenuous system, then what sort of poetry would they produce? Where would their art lead them without this system hanging over their heads, trying to tell them what is right or wrong, acceptable or not? Is the answer to refuse any coercion towards revising a piece of writing, whether internal or external? At the risk of self-condemnation, I have had poems published that I probably spent less than five hours revising, as well as poems that were published more than five years after their first draft and underwent many revisions, combinations with other poems, and even a few un-revisions of large failed sections. Is the less revised poem more ingenious? Looking back at my work, I find the complexity, layering of emotions, and associations to be richer in the more nurtured poems, although the less revised poems do have an intensity and openness that the others can’t quite reach. I can remember several different writing Professors explaining to the class examples of a great writer who had toiled for countless hours to make a single line sound spontaneous, but I do wonder if a labored spontaneity doesn’t have minute cracks in its façade where genuine spontaneity does not. Can the raw energy of improvised genius really be captured and contained fully on the pencil-marked or cut-and-pasted page? Perhaps something valuable is sacrificed if the MFA system does in fact squelch genuine spontaneity with the high-thread-count pillow of revision. I think Shivani may have a point when he mentions the “peculiarly self-conscious writerly style” of a heavily revised piece, not because this is an inherently flawed approach to writing a poem, what Tony Hoagland has referred to as the “skittish” product of many young contemporary writers, but rather because an uninhibited and freewheeling extroverted style, that embraces its connection to audience and the creative force behind a shared moment without nitpicking itself, should also have a place in poetic discourse that allows it to be what it is. A system of programs, workshops, readings, and literary magazines and presses with their pay-to-submit contests that use close reading as a way to dismiss writing that isn’t as technically wellwrought as a heavily revised piece for the sake of what Shivani refers to as a “conservativeness in organization” may be losing an animating force that could propel poetry in new and exciting directions, to a place more dynamic than the mere institution of craft. Shivani claims that “literary writers not attached to the academy are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.” If this is true, it may be the result of the “publish or perish” mantra, which leads many writers to seek the acceptance of institutions by learning the system. Their membership card makes them more likely to be published, which reinforces the need for revision and squeezes out any different approaches. The problem seems to lie in the attachment; that is, the need for program graduates to seek approval from existing institutions rather than forging their own path. I believe that writing programs do foster and develop both talent and the application of craft, such that a writer who concludes that he has nothing to learn from those in the academy is almost certainly limiting the potential of what he can achieve with his art. It probably takes both raw talent and a deep understanding of craft to be able to write a compelling poem without much revision, and most artists who never have contact with the MFA system, literary journals and presses, conferences, or


writer’s retreats probably won’t be able to do it. Community matters to writers, both for testing and developing their aesthetic and for finding and interacting with an audience. But if a writer doesn’t learn that sometimes it is necessary to throw everything that she thinks she knows about how to write a poem out the window in order to stay true to how a piece in progress is developing, then her unique expression of genius may suffer death from a thousand little cuts.


Album of Poems Presents a Strong Lead Vocal: A Review of Jericho Brown’s Please (New Issues, 2008) by Kelcy Wilburn

While it probably wouldn’t hurt for a reader of Jericho Brown’s collection Please to be a lover of classic R&B as well as poetry, I would assert that the reader needn’t be either. Musically speaking, the collection certainly refers to numerous performers and songs, even going so far to say that the poem is “as sung by” such artists as Diana Ross and Janis Joplin. Poetically speaking, the language Brown chooses for his poems is accessible, his voice open and honest, his diction simple and clear. The collection, placed together as songs on an album, does have musical qualities, and there’s no question of a strong lead vocal. Generally autobiographical, these poems have the ability to resonate within the reader much as they would resonate off the walls of an old, dark jazz hall. Deeply personal and reflective, many of the poems have a hard, cold edge to them made apparent by Brown’s unwillingness neither to sugarcoat nor to conceal, which seems appropriate given that his main theme explores the connection of love to violence. The book is split into four sections with each section title consisting of a command button on a stereo, “Repeat,” “Pause,” “Power,” and “Stop.” The last section contains no poems but only the “Liner Notes,” which furthers Brown’s vision that the book simulates a musical album. The titles seem awkward or strangely ordered being that intuitively “Power” would come before any of the other sections, and yet it appears third and last in the sequence of poems. I don’t think Brown intended that they be in a more sensible order because it’s the order of the poems, not the sections, that matters most. The book needs to begin with Track 1 (“Track 1: Lush Life”), and this poem deserves to be in the section titled “Repeat.” From what I gather of the poems in “Repeat,” the poems all reflect recurring themes in Brown’s life and mind. Many seem to be childhood experiences that he retains in his memory, experiences that have shaped him as poet and person. When they aren’t reflecting a childhood experience, they sometimes feel like meditations or series of thoughts that circle the poet’s mind. One poem in this section that exhibits both experience and recurring memory is “Again,” which begins, You are not as tired of the poem As I am of the memory. A returning toothache On either side of the mouth. (15) A few lines later Brown recounts walking as a child with his mother before criticizing his memory: We walk as if the house behind us Isn’t warm enough For my feet. In the dark We make a few blocks


Around the one-story neighborhood That I loved Though nothing I’ve written Tells you this. I want to cut it out of me. Because. Turns out it never mattered. (15) These memories to Brown are referred to as a “toothache,” an “ingrown hair,” and a “simple itch” that leads to a “bruising scratch.” His comparison of physical pain and emotional turmoil is the most recurring theme in the book, which even announces itself as an exploration into “the points in our lives at which love and violence intersect.” The poet knows this theme well, and fortunately for the reader, knows himself well, too. His ability to reflect on a past filled with physical abuse and then make discoveries about its place in himself as an adult shows a great deal of maturity and strength, and the finesse with which he treats these discoveries in his poetry is something to be admired. In “Pause,” Brown’s poems often give us short glimpses of relationships and brief moments inside the poet’s mind. He is jealous of two lovers in a fast-food line; he waits as a lover puts on a condom; he picks up a hitchhiker just to have someone with which to talk, to find his reflection in a pair of eyes. While “Repeat” seems to give the background and ruminations of the poet, “Pause” gives the poet himself, places him in specific moments of stillness or waiting and wanting. In the poem “Morning,” the reader is able to wake with the speaker and make his observations alongside him: Some late-night passerby has left A cracker on the walkway closest to my window. He probably dropped it, nibbling steadily until The taste overtook his hands. So much crumbles while we sleep. So much soaks through. Think Of what can happen when we doze Like men dead in their graves— The rain. A few crumbs. A swarm of ants beyond the door. (35) Brown is able to find meaning in the subtlest images and observations: a cracker, the smirk of a fast-food employee, a shrike killing its prey. Brown sees pieces of himself in all of these things and pauses to make the connection. Reading each poem is like watching a man do a double-take and then wanting to know what it is he thinks he sees or what it is for which he looks. The poems are also accessible enough that the reader can know these things if paying close attention. The poignancy of the poems in this section is startling and painful, but as the reader feels their brutality, he or she can also feel the love that’s present within them, which leaves an almost bitter craving for more of both.


The third section, “Power,” delivers. Full of action, the poems in “Power” give movement to the collection. While some exhibit language of strength and masculinity (“Why I Cannot Leave You”), others demonstrate either supremacy and control or a desire for control (“Like Father”). The leading vocal in these poems is commanding and dominant, though the speaker or poet may not be. This conflict is evident in “Lion,” where there is a wish for violence but an admission of incapability: I wish you’d live forever Afraid of dying. See the circus and be content. Animals crawling like infants for the men Who made them. I wish you would Sniff a man. I wish his whip Sharper than fangs. I wish you could know How bite-less I feel, the mouth I don’t close, his head in my throat. (47) The double entendre in the last line of the poem adds a sexual connotation to the lion metaphor and delivers again the punch of violent love that Brown consistently explores throughout the collection. The lines are so often blurred in Brown’s poems that the effect can be frightening. After reading this debut collection, I welcome Jericho Brown as a fresh new voice in poetry. His adventurous voice combined with his realness and intriguing story (at least the one painted in these poems) make for an excellent and compelling first collection. Brown’s love for music and attachment to it, when emphasized in the book, only add another interesting layer to the already promising body of autobiographical work. Not only do I hear his soulful voice, I feel as though I am on the front row of a music hall watching him belt out each poem with eyes tensely scrunched and mouth wide open, a drop of sweat trembling and glistening on his brow, waiting for just the right moment to fall.


Cultural Nostalgia and the Art of Making Films by Meredith King

The current cultural moment is filled with nostalgia. There’s recent nostalgia, reflected as 80s teen movies are recreated for Super Bowl commercials. There’s slightly older nostalgia, exposing the seedy under belly of the early 1960s in Mad Men. We’ve even taken it to a trans-Atlantic shared nostalgia for the simplicity (or not?) of aristocratic life in wealthy, Edwardian England through the critically acclaimed series, Downton Abbey. The Oscars are not immune to this trend, naturally. Out of the ten best picture nominations, all but one, The Descendants, take place largely in another decade. Even The Descendents works in the concept of personal nostalgia with ancestry and families. While some movies, such as The Help, The Tree of Life, and War Horse are merely set within a different time period, others not only play with the cultural nostalgia, but also with the nostalgia for specific acts of artistic innovation. The Artist, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris go beyond cultural nostalgia and move in to artistic nostalgia, during which each of these films, in their own ways, reflects back upon the history of their art forms, exploring particular innovations and game-changers from within the nostalgia framework. The first two seem to revel in the artistic process of the time that is being explored. The latter, however, somewhat suggests that the fascination of the modern-day artist with the past moment of artistic innovation, is a romanticized notion that, while worth exploring, perhaps does not have as much to teach us starry-eyed artists who long for yesteryear may have hoped. Both Hugo and The Artist want to look at moment of cultural innovation, particularly as it pertains to film. Hugo looks into the possible life of the man who was once responsible for innovations in film effects. Mélièr, as Hugoreflects him, needs to be shown that his technical innovations matter. Clearly, they do, as they inspired director and noted film enthusiast to reflect back on them over one hundred years since Mélièr’s famous A Trip to the Moon debuted.Hugo wants the viewer to appreciate the innovation as society moves on from it, noting its importance in the development of the art of film. The Artist brings film viewers in to familiar territory in exploring the very essential change that happened between silent film and “talkies.” Arguably one of the best films of all time, Singing in the Rain, takes place at the same cultural moment. What The Artist does so well here is completely engage the audience in that cultural moment. The film really makes the audience think about the place of noises, not just talking, in our current cinema. It is hard not to notice the lack of sound


effects as one watches the film, making the transition that much more poignant. In this film, even more than the others, the audience is meant to see the difficulty that comes through the process of implementing that particular technical innovation, while still seeing how much it informs contemporary filmmaking All three films are different stylistically, but Midnight in Paris separates itself even further with its conception of the contemporary nostalgia for past artistic innovation as a false nostalgia. It seems to suggest that if one were to travel back in time to one’s own personal high-water mark for artistic movements (Paris in the 1920s for the writer protagonist), the people who you so admire would be looking to a different, even further, cultural moment for their inspiration. In this way, Midnight in Paris accepts and plays with the artist’s need for nostalgia toward creative innovations and artistic movements of the past, while still accepting that there is validity in remembering the current cultural artistic moment outside of the romanticization of times of yore. Moving back to the contemporary cultural moment, in which Oscar buzz is certainly important, it is worth noting that the two films discussed in this article as reveling in the artistic processes of the past are both about filmmaking, specifically technological changes that revolutionized the art form. The third, however, is about the process of writing a book, and looking to the past for inspiration. Perhaps the filmmaker gets excited by what it would have been like to be there at the time of the innovation. Perhaps the writer, more cynically, sees that the innovators, no matter their time period, are frustrated and nostalgic for a by-gone era, right up until they move forward rather than backward and find a way to push firmly in to the future.


Comic Books Don’t Need You to Defend Them by Jon Judy

A good friend of mine – a perpetual student, like myself – was bitching about his courses over coffee. He had a seemingly endless catalogue of books to endure, and most of it was scholarly bullshit. “Too much information about nothing, too much educated rap,” as Bob Dylan said. I was in commiseration mode when he lumped one of my favorite comic books in with the rest of the bullshit he had been assigned. “Six years of higher learning, and now I have to read a graphic novel,” he whined, saying it like he needed a spoonful of sugar. We then had a futile exchange in which I tried to convince this philistine that comic books could indeed be, and often are, art. He remained unconvinced, and all I got for my time was pissed off. It’s a discussion every comics fan has had, the debate over the merits of the medium. So many people confuse the content with the form, dismissing all of it simply because most of it is involves people in their underwear beating each other up and tossing cars around. I suffer no delusions about the worth of most comic books or the quality of the output of the industry. Most of it is shit, like the shit for brains one has to have not to separate the wheat from the crap. OK, so most comics are shit. So are most TV shows, movies, and books. And yet no one dismisses those media as being intrinsically without worth. But for close to a century now, that is exactly what most people, even educated ones like my friend, have done to comics. This dismissal has led comic book practitioners and devotees to develop a severe inferiority complex, enduring, as they often have, endless fights to validate their interest in the medium. One can see evidence of the esteem deficit in the way most comics fans themselves refer to the medium. They are not, the geek with low self-esteem, insists, comic books. They are instead graphic novels. It was a term allegedly coined by comics great Will Eisner (although there is some disagreement about that), because the big publishing houses wouldn’t touch his comic books. So he pitched them as graphic novels instead, and that’s what it took for comic books to escape the newsstand. No offense to the late, great Eisner, but I’m of the modern, liberated class of dorks who believe in re-claiming the medium and its accoutrements. Fanboys with Attitude. And so I’m here to defend the artistic merit of comics or comic books. You can take your graphic novels and smoke them.


So is comics art? Or rather can comics be art. By the way, I’m using “comics” as a singular noun, as a topic, in the same way that cartoonist Scott McCloud uses the word. Like “Politics is show business for ugly people.” So comics is art. The assertion that comics can be art has prima facie validity to me, but that validity is not so readily apparent to many, even to those who should know better. As a child in advanced classes, I argued for comics to disapproving teachers. As a magna cum laude undergrad, I protested my cause to skeptical professors. As a master’s student, I defended both thesis and comics before my thesis committee. And now here I am, a PhD student, and I find I still must defend my favorite medium from attacks from equally and even more educated people. Even people I count as friends, whose intellects I respect, sometimes get in on the attack. I’m not saying all the critics of the first half of the century were wrong to say that comics could rot kids’ brains. I’m just saying they were wrong to say all comics could. A bad comic will most definitely fry the egg in your brainpan, but that’s another essay. Right now I’m a fanboy, and I’m defending my medium. Traditionally, because of their terrible self-esteem about their subculture, fanboys have responded to attacks on comics’ artistic merits by looking outside of the medium and the fan community for validation. And so as a young reader I felt a twinge of pride every time I saw an item in a fan mag about a comic book that had been licensed by a movie studio. “You know,” I’d tell my critics, “they’re adapting Sgt. Rock into a major motion picture. They’re looking to get Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger to star.” As though the interest of the stars of Blind Date and Kindergarten Cop somehow validated the medium. As though any filmmakers could capture the strange beauty of Joe Kubert’s storytelling, pretty and graceful and ugly and dirty and realistic and fanciful all at once. You know, they named Q-Bert after Kubert, but then there I go again with an appeal to false authority. I pointed to all of the Batman tchotchke that was omnipresent in the wake of Tim Burton’s movie. “See how much people like comics when they give them a shot?” I didn’t know what an ad populum fallacy was then. I didn’t even know what a “fallacy” was, although I suspect the word would have made me laugh. It still makes me smile. Point is, I was still looking outside of the medium instead of to its own merits. Every time a superhero dropped the f-bomb, I swelled with pride. Every comic book labeled “Suggested for Mature Readers” made me that much more certain of the greatness of the medium, even if the only things that distinguished most of those comics from others was an increase in violence and a decrease in clothing. “See,” I’d say, “comic books aren’t just for kids.” Add “mature” to the list of words whose meanings I didn’t truly know. Now let me see if my expanded vocabulary and, I hope, improved grasp of logic will enable me to craft a defense of comics. First, if the medium’s status as art is questionable, what cannot be questioned? On what can we agree? Can we agree that illustration is an art? Well comics, you may be shocked to learn, are illustrated. Can we agree that writing is an art? Well someone has to write these things. Even the shitty ones. As I said, prima facie.


But let’s play devil’s advocate and really test this proposition. My hypothesis: Comics can be art. My null hypothesis: Comics cannot be art. If I can find an example of comics that can conclusively be labeled “art,” then I have disproven my null hypothesis, and the issue is settled. Comics defenders regularly invoke certain milestones of the medium whose status as art they find beyond reproach. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for example, is a complicated, autobiographical narrative re-telling of a Holocaust survivor’s story to his son. It is nuanced. It is dense. It is art. It won a Pulitzer, but now I’m once more looking outside for validation. Carl Barks’ magnificent Uncle Scrooge stories are art. The fantastic and hilarious adventures of this robber/adventurer baron defy description. They are like funny, action-packed dreams that were somehow captured on paper. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg cited the Scrooge stories as an influence on the character of Indiana Jones. But, yeah, there I go again. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman wove mythology and Dickensian melodrama into an allegorical, Aristotelian tragedy that raised all of the big questions and tried to answer them in an original way. If that isn’t art, what is? Tori Amos is a fan, and so was Norman Mailer. Shit. I’ve got to stop doing that. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen rocked the comics industry. The long, complicated narrative, the visual symbolism, the mature nature of the story were without precedent. Together it is comics. Together it is art. They even made a shitty movie about it. Take that, art snobs. My medium one-upped yours. This is no appeal to false authority. This is beating an authority up and giving it a swirlie. In 1954, a Senate subcommittee investigated comic books, prompted by concerns that they caused children to become juvenile delinquents. The most vocal of those comic book critics was Dr. Frederic Wertham, a famous and respected psychiatrist. Bill Gaines, publisher of the legendary E.C. Comics, testified in defense of his products, and he began that testimony with a prepared statement in which he said, “It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid.” Indeed! Comics is like pornography is like art: You know it when you see it. And if you don’t see art when you see comics, then I can say nothing to sway you. You’re a frigid old maid, and you’ll never appreciate the greatness of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four stories, or of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, or Dave Sim’s Cerebus. It’s almost enough to make me pity you pretentious snobs. All around the world, comics is recognized as art. Some call it manga, some call it fumetti, some call it bande dessinée. All call it art. Just as with jazz, we have largely missed the boat on an art we created, a child we abandoned. If this essay has accomplished what I set out to do, then it has been both a defense of an art form and a suggested reading list. It is by no means a comprehensive list of comics as art, but there should be something in there for everyone. Everyone with an open mind that is.


BURIED LETTER PRESS www.buriedletter.com


Buried Letter Press February 2012  

Creative criticism, literary journalism, artistic explication, and other fine shenanigans.

Buried Letter Press February 2012  

Creative criticism, literary journalism, artistic explication, and other fine shenanigans.

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