Buried Letter Press January 2012 ÂŠ Buried Letter Press 2011-2012 Cover Image by Brandon Mackey Untitled 2010
Buried Letter Press Akron, Ohio
Untitled Brandon Mackey Pencil & ink on paper 2010
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
JANUARY 2012 ISSUE Angelic Vision and the Importance of Disassociation by Nate Kostar The Disharmony Club by SLM Young HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC # 3 The Artist and Writer by Nathan Floom The Income of Art by Rebecca Boncal Evolution and Extinction: A Look at Music and Social Competition for the Arts by Matthew C. Mackey Policing Metaphor by Brian R. Young A New Haunting from the Old Bayou: A Review of Rachel Richardsonâ€™s Copperhead by Dawn Manning The MFA Question by Brian R. Young and SLM Young
Angelic Vision and the Importance of Disassociation by Nate Kostar Once, many moons ago, I sat on a cushion on the floor of an outdoor bar in Thailand, high on mushrooms, gazing over the balcony at a long stretch of beach below. For a moment, I glanced at the small wooden table where my water sat, and it was no longer a table but a form—a large glob of white conveniently fitted upon mysterious legs in a way that just so happened to balance my drink. I was not hallucinating. I did not think the table was a spider or something animate. I still knew what it was. But, I saw it differently, as if seeing it for the first time. The splashes of neon paint that had been spilt by partygoers decorating their bodies for the full moon, which I had hardly noticed when I walked into the bar sober, were now distinct explosions of color—sky colors, cloud colors, sand, jungle and star colors. I realized that for a moment I had disassociated. I had separated commonplace objects from their names and my preconceptions of them. In doing so, I had seen them anew. For the rest of my time at the beach, I witnessed the marvelous interconnectivity of color. The profound red of the jungle leaves also appeared in the sunset and in the stones along the path to my bungalow and in the flush of a girl’s cheeks. When I looked deeply, the soft blue of the sky beyond the horizon was everywhere. I also made an effort to stop and look beyond the names of things and into the uniqueness of their form. Each flower on the bush near my window was different from its kin, each grain of sand distinct. Not only did this awareness make life more enjoyable, but it also did a great deal for my writing. I was able to describe things without relying so much on the usual signs. * In my investigations into the nature of disassociation and its relationship to writing, I came across a letter from the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In it he writes, Now, I louse up myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working to make myself a Seer: you will not understand at all, and I hardly know how to explain it to you. The point is to arrive at the unknown by the dissoluteness of all the senses. The suffering is enormous, but one has to be strong, to be born a poet, and I have recognized myself to be a poet. It is not my fault at all…It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought…I is someone else. Counter intuitively, Rimbaud was concerned not with the sharpening of his senses but with the dissolution of them; not with the strengthening or discovery of self, but with the relinquishing of it. And why? Because he wanted to be a poet. Although he quit writing poetry at the young age of 19, he is now regarded as one of the most influential poets of all time. Perhaps he was on to something. * It is not natural to separate a thing from its name, nor do I think it is advisable or even possible to disassociate entirely. Even amidst my mushroom induced epiphany I was making certain associations—the table with form and legs, the colors with sky, cloud, sand, jungle etc. To
disassociate completely would require falling into an abyss where everything is unknown and new. It would probably lead to madness, which many believe was Rimbaud’s intention or at least the eventual outcome of his quest. But as artists, I think, we must learn to disassociate as much as we can. We must cultivate the ability to look at the world with fresh eyes, create truer image and metaphor, and investigate the deeper nature of things. We must try to see the image behind the word, the actuality behind the sign post. We may ask ourselves, “What is the specific grass like? What is its nature, its qualities, both in its universality and its uniqueness? Just as a painter cannot rely on his idea of a tree in order to paint the tree before his eyes, a poet cannot depend on the idea (or name) of a thing in order to describe it. I do not suggest we rely on destructive elixirs or plunge into the depths of insanity to achieve the effects of disassociation, nor aspire to disassociate entirely. We can see things more clearly by consciously breaking our habit-actions in order to challenge and disorient; to experience ‘newness’ hidden in what we already know, and also by simply being more mindful. To do this is to make poetry out of life, to make the surreal a reality. In my own life, travel has been the most consistent way I have been able to experience the benefits of disassociation. In foreign lands, I come in contact with many things I have never seen and have no name for. Because I cannot lazily rely on the usual symbols, if I am to depict them accurately and share my experience, or even just to process a thing for myself, I must look at it fresh. But those of us who do not or cannot travel need simply to be more mindful. In Buddhism, for instance, one is expected to be capable of seeing the cosmos in a grain of rice, not through hallucination or romanticism or on the hinges of faith, but through reasoning. For in order for the rice to exist at all it had to be nurtured by the sun, the rain, the soil , the air, man, time, chance, etc, and so the rice contains or has contained all of these elements. Taking this realization farther one sees that all things are interconnected and interdependent; all things are all things. With this understanding it is not insanity to look at a table and see a white spider, or to see sunshine in the color blue. In fact, it is very beautiful to see this way, for it implies that when we come in contact with one thing in the world, a grain of rice, a flower, the delicate fingers of our lover, we touch the entire universe. I recently had the pleasure of reading a chapbook by a young poet and practitioner of Buddhism, Ocean Vuong, called Burning. In it there is a poem that wonderfully illustrates the power of disassociation. In Seeing As It Is, Vuong describes a young girl in a hospitable room having bandages removed from her eyes. She has been blind all of her life and “She will see for the first time/ the objects we’ve limited/ through naming.” When the bandages are removed she walks to the window and looks out. The first thing she sees is a plane flying into the World Trade Center building. It is 9/11. Vuoung writes, And there, against the morning skyline, a plane veers, smashes into that great tower. Without a sound,
a breath of fire spews into immaculate blue. Each flame darkening into slow rivers of smoke. She imagines that this is the image of music as she presses her nose to the glass and says without blinking Mommy you were right. This world is beautiful. Some critics, in their misinterpretations, take offense to the idea that someone could see beauty in such a tragic event. But at the root of this sort of reaction, aside from missing the point entirely, is a very limited way of seeing. The girl in the poem is capable of seeing the world devoid of signs and meanings and biases. Because she has been blind all of her life, she can now see beauty in everything. Vuong is in no way suggesting September 11th was a beautiful event, but rather meditating on how the explosion itself would appear to a blind person. His poem implies that we cannot ignore the beauty of something because of our preconceptions about its meaning. Consider this next time you rake those pesky (red, yellow, orange, crimson-colored) leaves in your yard or even when you do the dishes. Beauty is not something external from ourselves, it is ourselves, and if a girl can find beauty in something as horrible as 9/11 surely we can see and enjoy beauty throughout our day. We only need to look at the world as though we are seeing it for the first time. * Most of us have a natural inclination to associate. When we see a tree, it is simply a tree. We have seen trees our entire lives, we know its name, its qualities, and what it usually looks like. This manner of thinking leads us to rely on the stasis and overgeneralization of language by which we fail to marvel at the specific tree before our eyes, it makes us blind, and artists cannot afford to go blind. William Carlos Williams wrote in the introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, “Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels.” I do not know if poets are “damned,” but I am certain that if they are to be any good, they must try to “see with the eyes of angels.” Learning to disassociate is one way of doing so.
The Disharmony Club by SLM Young Creative Nonfiction is a genre rife with discord; it seems no one can agree on anything. Do we deal in truth or in capital-T Truth, and which is more important? When did the form begin? Can creative nonfiction be considered literature? Is it worthy of analysis? And perhaps most commonly disagreed about: what the hell is it? Attempting to answer these questions makes me I feel as though I’m treading water: my arms and legs are moving, but I’m going nowhere; I’m merely keeping my head above water, and just barely. It laps at my ears when I slow my movements. Since I am drowning anyway, I’ll begin in the negative, with what it is not, and try to swim upstream: creative nonfiction is not history, physics, or sociology. It is not traditional journalism, argumentation, or academic examination. It is not purely informative or persuasive, nor is it objective, though it does inform, may persuade, and many would argue that traditional journalism isn’t truly objective either. Creative nonfiction does not include travel guides or cookbooks, though if you were to visit a book store, you would likely find creative nonfiction in both the travel and cooking sections. It is also not biography or autobiography, though, again, you’ll find creative nonfiction in these sections, too. It is maddening, isn’t it, to attempt a definition by what something is not, especially when there is always someone who will come along and disagree? This is how it feels to be a defender (read: writer) of creative nonfiction. In my own frustration during a discussion with a colleague about what creative nonfiction is and is not, I recently said that creative nonfiction is sort of like obscenity as explained by Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” In saying so, I hadn’t meant to be glib; I actually have considered this question of what it is I write for years; consequently, I become frustrated when people say that anything can be considered creative nonfiction, just as I grow enraged when people describe the genre as tarnished or as James Wolcott once called it, “a sickly transfusion.” You may recall me heaving an imaginary gravy boat at an imaginary friend who called the genre a hybrid, so I don’t know how many more times I can answer this question before I actually throw the whole damned china cabinet across the room. As I mentioned in that piece, an essay is nothing more or less than an attempt. Samuel Johnson in A Dictionary of the English Language defines an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” And for those of you who don’t know the word, “sally” had four definitions in Johnson’s Dictionary: “eruption”, “excursion”, “flight”, and “escape.” It seems despite my best efforts, we are moving further away from understanding what the hell this thing is. The problem seems to begin with its title—Creative Nonfiction—which people inherently do not want to trust. How can something be described as both exact and imaginative? Once you can begin to understand how writing can be both creative and truthful, then you can begin to understand creative nonfiction, and to understand how, you must see it, which is why I think my
borrowing of Justice Stewart’s opinion is apt. Consider the opening of Judy Ruiz’s essay, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy”: I am sleeping, hard, when the telephone rings. It’s my brother, and he’s calling to say that he is now my sister. I feel something fry a little, deep behind my eyes. Knowing how sometimes dreams get mixed up with not-dreams, I decide to do a reality test at once. “Let me get a cigarette,” I say, knowing that if I reach for a Marlboro and it turns into a trombone or a snake or anything else on the way to my lips that I’m still out in the large world of dreams. The cigarette stays a cigarette. I light it. I ask my brother to run that stuff by me again. When Ruiz writes that she feels something “fry a little, deep behind” her eyes, I know what she means; I feel it. She has invited me in to her story, I already have a sense of who this person is, and I’m prepared to accompany her on the mental journey she is beginning. And she has done all this work quickly, deftly, and beautifully. Creative nonfiction hinges on the voice of the writer, the “I” telling the story, and the trust created between the reader and writer as that writer develops, reflects, and reveals her meaning and intention. It is not enough to tell a story. It is not enough to have an opinion. The writer of creative nonfiction must possess both openness and precision. In “The Modern Essay,” Virginia Woolf wrote that “Somehow or other, by dint of labour or bounty of nature, or both combined, the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” The best essayists strive for this purity; occasionally, we readers are blessed enough experience it. So far, I have been focusing on “the essay,” which leads me to another of creative nonfiction’s difficulties: there are a great number of “forms” that fall under its heading, essay being the oldest, having been crafted and coined as such by Michel de Montaigne around 1580. I won’t pretend to be able to sum up everything of writing importance over the next 400 years, but it seems crucial to jump ahead to 1959, when Truman Capote read a blurb in a newspaper and embarked on a mission to create a new kind of novel; the “Nonfiction Novel” was how Capote described In Cold Blood, which was published in 1965 and seems to have changed journalism forever. It led to the creation of “New Journalism,” which includes the writer’s interpretation and dramatization of the events being reported, popularized by writers such as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson (who veered off from New Journalism to Gonzo Journalism). At the time, this “New Journalism” was frowned upon in much the same way that creative nonfiction is currently distrusted. In the New Yorker, Renata Adler described the form as “zippy prose about inconsequential people.” Perhaps I should have started with this description for creative nonfiction. It does, after all, provide a fairly accurate description of the last form I would like to mention—the memoir. It is the memoir that has brought the genre of creative nonfiction the most scandal and the most gibes; we all know too well the James Frey debacle (and if you don’t know it, I won’t accuse you of living under a rock, just of not watching Oprah, and I’ll suggest you look it up). Seemingly long ago and far away, when people decided to write their “memoirs,” they were writing autobiographies. In fact, the remnants of those “memoirs”—listing one’s awards, achievements, and conquests—can be found today in celebrity memoirs, though these are not what I
mean when I say “memoir.” I am referring, specifically, to literary memoirs that strive to balance uniqueness with universality. The current mass popularity of memoirs began in the mid-1990s with the publication of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Critics tend to call these books “memoirs of crisis” and often seem to find no literary merit in their pages. Indeed, Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss, a memoir which discusses her incestuous relationship with her father, was flogged in the press; her book was called “slimy” and “repellent” by Jonathan Yardley, and she was asked to “hush up” in the Wall Street Journal, as though some truths are simply too ugly to be told. Despite this type of reception, however, the book does, at least in my opinion, have literary merit. Harrison speaks the unspeakable, she combines her true narrative with dreamlike imagery, and she shows the world that the story of an inconsequential person can have resonance and humanity. Creative nonfiction isn’t simply about the retelling of an event; if it were, then only the famous and important person would be able and worthy enough to write it. Creative nonfiction is an exploration into the mind of a person who has thought long and hard about an experience, it is about exploring the memory of and the living with that event. Creative nonfiction is about humanity through the writer’s use of empathy; it is the combination of fictional elements with memory, a particular attention to language, and the writer’s mind at work on the page, trying to discover and connect and reflect, while maintaining her intention beneath it all—Truth.
HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC #3 The Artist and Writer by Nathan Floom The young artist sits at a table and ponders his own existence in this world. Around him in the coffee shop the wanna-be professional writers, artists and pseudo intellectuals discuss the cultural ramifications of the economical impact of the nihilistic tendencies in Ulysses. The young artist watches this and wishes that he could understand. His note pad in front of him is empty and his dollar coffee is cold, clashing and challenging the frappucinos and tall steaming drinks of his peers around him. He returns to the place night after night and his parents wonder if he is on drugs. He does not have many friends and begins to smoke cigarettes because that is what the other artists do. Sometimes he writes words down in a note pad; sometimes he reads parts out of old goodwillpurchased classic books. The writers and artists and foreign tea drinkers begin to chat with him. They see early potential in him, in his note pad, his cold coffee. The rings around his eyes grow as he tries and tries and tries again. His note pad growing and multiplying. His collection of foreign and indie films collecting dust next to his television from 1999. He is always failing and coming short from what he desires—notoriety, fame, intelligence. The same sort of presence that the writers and artists at the coffee shop surly possess. He goes on to higher education and there he is embraced. His work from note pads is turned into printed paper in a common font. It sparkles and gleams in front of the professor’s mind. He feels great, but deep down inside he knows there is nothing to show for it. Nothing will ever come of it. The constant effort, the time, the refinement and study. He will never be as good as those that came before him, and not as good as the best around him. The young artist is now a man and goes out into the real world after his education and realizes that what he is doing is wrong. All of it. He must now work for himself. Like in the coffee shop before. He must bring out his old notepad and drink his cold coffee and watch people walk around with books they never opened or really understand. He may understand them now, and in the moments between his job, which has nothing to do with his degree, he wishes that he went into law or animal medicine because he lives with his parents again and they think he is on drugs, again. The same artists and writers that talk in the coffee shop are still there and he realizes that they don’t understand what they’re talking about. They are playing pretend in the doll house of the small coffee shop. Their thick glasses from the 1950’s and their obscure book titles don’t mean
anything because the words that come out of their mouths are fake. The words are nothing, mindless babble in attempts to fit in and meld with the environment created in their impotenceâ€” talking about the cultural feminine pseudo-capitalistic consequences of barren-woman discovery stories. The young-writer-now-a-man sees this. Ignores them, and sips on his now cold coffee. They try to bring him to them again, but he declines. His note pad fills, and then fills again, and it is cloned and filled and repeated and nobody ever really sees what is written inside.
The Income of Art by Rebecca Boncal Lucia Extebarria Photograph: ABC.es
Photo: Lucia Etxebarria, from abc.es
Prize-winning Spanish author Lucia Etxebarria announced recently on her facebook page that she intends to give up on writing and publishing, at least for the foreseeable future, because the number of illegally downloaded copies of her latest novel, The Contents of Silence, has squelched print sales. “I don’t want to spend three years slaving over a novel only to [have it stolen],” she posted. “If I want to give copies away, I will hand them out to my friends.” As might be expected when any public figure chooses facebook as the venue to post a controversial, career defining statement, Etxebarria’s wall was awash with vicious and critical comments, many asking that she explain how she spent the money she won from past prizes (the Planeta Prize is now worth €601,000, and the Primavera prize is currently worth €200,000). Others called her artistic integrity into question, arguing that to be a writer is a calling and vocation, not a day job, or pointing to past accusations of plagiarism. Many claimed they could not afford to purchase Etxebarria’s latest book, which sold for €20 in hardback, and blamed their piratical transgressions on her choice not to release a legal e-book version—an effort to deter piracy, in spite of which a PDF version of the novel was made available for illegal download from several websites. Etxebarria attempted to further explain her decision in a number of fb posts, describing her financial situation as unsustainable, but not immediately dire, stating that, despite the fact that she had been a best-selling author, the advance for her latest book was significantly lower than for previous books, citing illegal downloads as the cause of the drop in sales. She lamented her situation as a tax-paying, single mother, struggling to save enough for her daughter’s education, who was not born into a wealthy family, and earns her living by writing, without the financial support of a spouse—unlike some other writers she apparently knows—she no longer has the energy, she claims, to work a regular job all day and come home to write for hours at night as she had done in the past. The Guardian columnist Kathryn Hughes responded in an article the day after the paper first ran the story, pointing out that Etxebarria’s anger is understandable, but that her resolution to quit
writing and get a job “rings hollow” for the reason that few writers, if any, pursue a career in letters for the money. In her article, Hughes asks us to imagine that Etxebarria, like many authors who are unable to sustain a living off of their written work, takes a job teaching creative writing: “What she’ll discover on her first day is that the students in her seminar room have very little interest in how much money they are likely to make from their published work.” Based upon her experience teaching a creative writing course at UEA, Hughes draws the conclusion that Etxebarria is “extraordinary” in her desire to write only when she is assured of a financial return. But Hughes has never “had a student ask about the finances of publishing… They don’t ask about sales, either.” My own experience teaching creative writing to undergraduates is mostly consistent with Hughes’ experience, notwithstanding a number of exceptions that I might attribute to the fact that my students are taking out college loans during a recession and are more inclined than previous generations to consider the potential return on their investment. Hughes implies that to ask such questions would betray a “hollow” ring in the intentions or motives of the student writer who would ask them. At one time, I might have agreed with her. In my turn as a graduate student working toward my MFA in fiction at George Mason, it never occurred to me to ask my teachers about the process of getting publishing or finding an agent, primarily because I recognized that my writing wasn’t ready—that it would need maybe three, maybe ten years of fine tuning through practice. I could also recognize that not one of my fellow students wrote consistently with the depth and skill we learned by study and imitation to respect in the work of published writers. Because of my reluctance to look at writing as a business, or to pursue publication of my work, I was considered “extraordinary” among my peers, who felt pressured at every turn to “send something out.” In the classroom, I bristled when my fellow students shifted a discussion away from the subject of craft toward the commercial aspects of writing. But weren’t they wise to ask? I was well warned by my favorite writing teachers that the path of writer and academic was not a road to riches, fame, and was, instead, a lifetime of endless hours at my desk, delving into the deepest truths of the universe. As guides to our students, we teachers are responsible for offering the tools, for feeding the flame, the inner drive that pushes a beginning writer to create, but are we not also obligated to warn paying students that, like everything else in this country, writing is a business, and the creative work they produce can be sold, stolen, or exploited? Should we not, at the very least, prepare up-and-coming generations of writers for the fact that technology has shaken the board and that none of us see yet where the pieces will land? I sympathize with Etxebarria. As a writer who has had to balance my creative work with a full-time job, I am grateful that my husband’s salary has given me the temporary freedom to teach part-time while I draft my book. Grateful especially because, six months ago, I was writing in the mornings, leaving for work often at the very moment when I felt the gears had shifted into place, tearing from my desk and pages with anguish and a nagging sense that if I’d had more time, I could have written in deeper. My pay-cut is a sacrifice for both of us, but it is not without hope of a payoff; I liken our situation to the one my parents faced in the first years of their marriage, when my Dad was working his way through residency to become a doctor. They lived off of my mom’s
Catholic school teacher’s salary, ate cereal for dinner many nights, and saved up for months to buy a board-game. It’s a time they like to recount with a romantic sort of amazement; my mom smiling as she remembers the end of every month, picking out cigarette butts from the ash-trays in the lobby of their apartment complex. But I only began to understand income disparity when my mother informed me (most likely in response to some remark I’d made, smacking of a spoiled teenager) that without my Dad, my mother would be teaching at a public school, and that she, my sister and I would be living in a small apartment, rather than in our middle-class suburban home, with one busted car between us, on a tightly belted budget, and that I would certainly be expected to work a full-time job to help fund my college education. It’s as if she was describing exactly what I might expect my life to look like if, say, my husband lost his job, or worse. But unlike writers in Hughes’ view, teachers work to make a living, even if they are warned at the outset of their careers that the wages are meager, that life will be a financial juggling act. Considering this, we might assume that the profession is populated exclusively by people who love to teach. Faced with circumstances—the death of a spouse, for example, and children to support — circumstances that would require a switch to a job with a greater income, would we expect such a person to go on teaching classes, unpaid, in her spare time? She loves teaching, after all. Why, then, should anyone expect this of a writer? And yet, I do expect an author to continue to write, even without any hope of monetary compensation. I am only baffled that Hughes would expect it, considering the motives she ascribes to writers: “Authors write not to communicate great truths, but to make their own tiny mark …to be heard, and noticed and even sometimes loved,” motives that might explain a desire to be published and read, but that do not account for the particular drive of those authors who labor through years without any guarantee that that they will make a mark, that they will be noticed, or that the adoration of a reading audience will bring them any satisfaction, who are driven to write for exactly the aim Hughes dismisses, “to communicate great truths.” I mean not to suggest that the author holds any special knowledge beyond the workings of his trade, but that the primary aim of fiction is to uncover a greater truth, to distill it through the process of creation, in language, to chip away with humility and perseverance at the pretense and the narcissism that might have started us writing at first, but that will not sustain us, and labor to uncover, in a communion with the imagined other—the reader, the truth within us both, greater than either.
Evolution and Extinction: A Look at Music and Social Competition for the Arts by Matthew C. Mackey 35,000 years. Yep, that’s how long humans have been playing music. Not too bad. My guess is much longer, but the oldest instrument found…so far… has been credited to the Paleolithic era. In 2009, a thin vulture-bone flute was found in a cave in the southwest part of Germany. Coupled with the discovery of 30,000- 33, 000 year old sculptures and the Chauvet Cave paintings dating from 30,000-32,000 years ago the bone flute gives art a long and credible part in human development.It seems humans have been artistically experiencing the world since as long as we have been conscious of our presence in it, and we keep redefining and inventing our means of expressing those experiences. For example, the modern concept of the novel is a relatively…novel idea. Although the origin of the novel is debated by such experts as Stephen Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternate History, it is widely held that in 1740 Samuel Richardson gave the genre a birth with Pamela, a recent endeavor comparatively. The important thing to note is that humans have been evolving not only as a species but as artists. Since the artistic genres, I’m thinking of visual arts, performing arts and literary arts, probably started evolving relatively (I use the term loosely) simultaneously, though literature as we recognize it today took much longer to develop, I wonder why one form has maintained a distinct social popularity while other artistic activities have , well, faded into the background. Ever since our sweaty-browed ancestor carved up that vulture bone, music has remained the most popular of artistic avenues. From the drums of the fire ceremony, to singing or chanting prayers towards the eastern sun, to inaugural ceremonies, to honorary tributes, and even to the car rides home, to the evening out, to the late night philosophical discussion, music has found its way into every aspect of human life. Every nation has its anthem, every school its fight song, and every individual sings a favorite tune in the shower, but what of visual art or works of literature or the theater? Of course I’m not moping because music has such domination over the arts or that it creates competition for those other artists who are working in other media. Kudos! Well done Music Gods! What I am interested in is why music is 35,000 years later still a social phenomenon, while other artistic endeavors have either lost or never quite attained such a grand status. Take for example, the plethora of bands and musicians making beacoup bucks while visual artists have a hard time making a decent living. I don’t mean to say that thousands of musicians don’t have a hard time surviving or that a handful of visual artists don’t make it big, but it’s far more likely that people on a Saturday night will go and PAY to listen to a band before they go to an art gallery. And, for example, when was the last time you heard of a poet reaching true “rock-star” status? Or a playwright having groupies? The terms were invented for the music world.
With as many artists we now have putting their work in touch with more people than at any other time in history, thanks to the advent of the computer, why is it that music is the most sought after artistic expression? I imagine it is followed closely by film, and the recent debate over literature piracy involving Lucia Extebarria gives me no …okay maybe a little comfort that people still want literary arts, especially if they’re willing to steal it. Is theft a form of flattery? Anyways, I don’t blame music for its domination, but where does that leave the rest of us artists? Do we simply say, “Well, it’s not what I do, so I’m not worried about it”? Hmm… I’m afraid we better not. If artists want to remain a viable component to society, it is necessary to understand that music probably more so than any other artistic genre has maintained a constant social relevancy. That is people find music pertinent to their lives, useful even. People build their own playlists, construct or imagine their own soundtracks, find memories flooding back every time a certain song pops on the radio. They play music trivia with friends, post songs on Facebook, and most of us have at one time or another dreamed of being in a band, and if not we all have bands or musical styles (there are a multitude to choose from) we love listening to. No matter how we slice it, we are inundated with music as an art form. And that is okay because I need something that fits my mood, expresses how I’m feeling at the moment, but like the rest of the world, I don’t often reach for the collection of Basho, Buson, and Issa on my shelf. When I told people I wanted to study poetry at the graduate level, the responses were less than encouraging: “You’ve got to be kidding,” “Are you rich? Is your family rich? Why would you do that?”, and my favorite, “Yeah, the world’s going to the shitter anyways. You might as well do something like that.” What the fuck? I thought. Don’t people care about the arts anymore? Those same people in fact did care about the arts. More appropriately, they cared about music. A few of them even paid close to a hundred dollars a ticket to go to see Elton John or Mumford and Sons in concert. Music is in demand. The other arts? Not so much. Film may be a growing second, bringing in millions of dollars of revenue, but even still, music trumps film in terms of social demand. Here’s and exercise to gauge just how much we recognize music over the other arts. Note how many you recognize from each brief and non-comprehensive list: MUSIC NON-MUSIC Coldplay William Faulkner Chet Baker Toni Morrison Miley Cyrus Gertrude Stein Katie Perry Paul Cezanne Madonna J.K. Rowling Cher Jackson Pollock Blink 182 Henri Matisse
Bob Dylan Tennessee Williams The Beatles George Bernard Shaw The Rolling Stones Oscar Wilde The National Ron Howard Now take it one step further and note how familiar you are with each recognized artist. For example, you might recognize both Coldplay and Oscar Wilde. How may Coldplay albums or downloaded songs do you own vs. how many works of Wilde grace your shelves, or Matisse prints on your walls? You probably own the Harry Potter series…we all do, and you may even own a Ron Howard movie. Again, I’m only comparing the artistic genres in order to demonstrate the current social appetite and pose the question of response to artists working in non-music genres. We don’t all have to be musicians. Though, it would do us well to be more musical in our pursuits. Confluence in artistic genres isn’t a bad thing at all. But I’m not asking you to start singing your poetry (give it a try, you might be surprised) or play piano over one of your short stories (again, surprise yourself) or paint to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (It is inspiring though). What I am saying is that as an artist you have a few choices. 1. You can accept the fact that your particular art form might not be in such high demand, and resign your work to academia or the small art gallery or publication or 2. You can compete in new and exciting ways, creating a new social place for the particular art forms you work in. No matter where you end up, academia, the small art gallery, a local press, on the bestseller’s shelf, or main-stage, it is important to consider the social place or role of your work. If it’s important enough to compose or create, then it should be important enough to be read, viewed, or experienced. I know this brings up the precarious question of audience in art, but it’s not a bad one to ask yourself. Where do you want to go with your work? Who do you want to experience it? How do you accomplish these things? Music has enjoyed almost as long a history of evolution as humans have. The relevancy that music has in society is due largely impart to its ability to adapt and evolve, to stay competitive, and to meet people where they are. While all of the artistic expressions have progressed (at different paces), Music is the artistic equivalent of Darwin’s natural selection, and when any art stops evolving, when it stops competing, when it stops being relevant, it slowly becomes extinct.
Policing Metaphor by Brian R. Young Last month I wrote about Sylvia Plath’s exclusion from the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by RitaDove. One of the possible justifications for not including her work was, as quoted by Robert Archambeau, “the appropriation of Holocaust imagery to discuss family unhappiness in ‘Daddy’…” The concept of appropriation is important to consider further: what is an author’s right to make use of what lies beyond her or his firsthand experience? A sordid history of appropriating this specific experience riddles popular culture, especially in the political arena, wherein those seeking or attempting to maintain power craft hyperbole to suggest fascistic tendencies in a rival. An example of this would be Rush Limbaugh’s use of the term “feminazi”—a blatant appropriation and hyperbole. Needless to say, it’s an exaggeration because women didn’t wield enough political power to allow them to be practicing fascists in the first place, even if they wanted to. At the core it’s a slippery slope argument—if men allow women to assert themselves in politics, they will seize power and do unspeakable things—and a hostility towards women asserting the right to any forms of power, political or otherwise. It’s also reductive; instead of broadening our understanding of an issue, it precludes further consideration. So, what can we make of Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery in “Daddy”: is it a cheap tactic to exaggerate her personal “unhappiness” and garner attention? Assuming for a moment that the poem is in fact autobiographical, we don’t know exactly how she was treated, so there’s no objective way to judge whether or not it qualifies as hyperbole. Certainly many people who consider domestic abuse a matter of course and not significant would call her poem an exaggeration, but are we comfortable making that claim? It comes down to whether or not we believe that the systematic abuse someone can suffer throughout their childhood is severe enough for a valid comparison. Unlike Limbaugh’s metaphor, the more we consider Plath’s comparison, the more insight we gain into the thought behind it and the more appropriate it seems. From the lasting effects of childhood abuse to its experience—not feeling at any moment that you have any control over your physical self because every thought and function is ruthlessly controlled—we can see what Plath is doing. Although she does not have any firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be in a concentration camp or to be a Jewish person living in Nazi Germany, that doesn’t mean that she is completely lacking in knowledge about the Holocaust: by the poem’s publication in 1965, the horrors of the Holocaust had been discussed throughout the world. And she is careful to draw many comparisons that serve a specific and important function: to address an apathetic attitude towards domestic abuse in no uncertain terms by connecting it with the apathy and inaction of many members of the world community while the Holocaust happened. I must confess that I’m more than a little bothered by the claims against Plath as an emotional or subjective poet, how easily the wall between author and speaker gets torn down with her in a way that hastily dismisses any larger rhetorical purpose. I hear sexism in the assertion that
she is too focused on the personal, versus the man’s work of a rational, objective universality. What Plath shows us with this metaphor is that through connecting a personal experience to the larger society and culture, a poet can achieve the kind of increased understanding that neither the strictly personal nor the purely objective can provide. A poet’s job is to use metaphor to forge connections that serve a meaningful purpose. If a writer limits herself to what she knows firsthand, whatever her background, then an entire realm of metaphoric possibility becomes off-limits, as does her ability to forge connections that increase the reader’s understanding of the relationship between the personal and its context. In a recent article titled “Why American Novelists Don’t Deserve the Nobel Prize” Alexander Nazaryan suggests that “America needs…a writer…who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn?” While I agree that being “mired” or “stuck” in a particular mindset is a legitimate problem for American writers in every genre, whether that limitation is academic or cultural, because it prevents them from reaching for metaphors that could speak about larger underlying connections (America does not see itself very clearly), I do take issue with the diagnosis that freeing oneself completely from these contexts would provide any more of a solution. That isn’t what authors who are winning the Nobel Prize are doing. (How could Plath convince the reader that childhood abuse is not only a lasting trauma but one that is perpetuated by the larger society if she didn’t draw upon her own experience for pathos?) Nazrayan puts the blame at the feet of those who David Foster Wallace referred to as “the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions…” for whom “[t]he very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.” However, he doesn’t discount the emergence in America of writers with different cultural backgrounds in this claim, saying that “The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white).” For example, he says “Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class IndianAmericans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York.” Although Nazaryan ends his article with a call for writers to be more “universal,” I think that he’s missing the point—what separates American writers from those of other nations is not a lack of what Nazaryan calls “big ideas,” but rather a developed social conscience. One could write endless tracts about the causes for this lack (technology and isolation, for example), but social consciousness doesn’t mean knowing about the lives of poor inner city AfricanAmerican children, or the children of immigrants, or indigenous communities—one can find narrowly focused and richly detailed works in all genres on these subjects—what it means is elucidating the relationship and connection between any or all divisions and classes. White Male
Narcissists are aptly named because they donâ€™t see how their experiences connect to those of others; they believe that one is not rich because another is poor; one is not abused because another does nothing. Until we can find a way to use metaphors to examine the connections that are ignored, we will continue to fail at writing great literature. The fact that we have so much diversity of background and experience in America should allow us the capacity to shape metaphors of profound insight and understanding, to explore complex interrelationships and interdependence.
A New Haunting from the Old Bayou: A Review of Rachel Richardson’s Copperhead by Dawn Manning
The viper draping the cover of Rachel Richardson’s first collection is a warning, not only of one of the most dangerous creatures in America, but that the readers who long to slip into the swamps of Louisiana must shed their preconceptions and enter this cultural landscape with the suppleness of water. Copperhead reframes the Bayou not as a post-Katrina, post-British Petroleum world, but as a social landscape centuries in the making. As Richardson notes in the opening poem, “Nocturne: Benton, Louisiana,” “there are places in this world telescopic and strange.” Though these poems echo with riffs bounced off the likes of Leadbelly and Brittany Spears, the rhythm of these poems encourages sauntering. At times, the words stretch out across white space, setting the slower pace vital to the wanderer who does not wish to miss the signs of what is lurking along the path from Grandma’s kitchen to the prisoners at Angola doing hard labor in “Sandbagging:” The warden says fill and you fill it. The river says break and you still it. The way through this collection of 40 poems is well marked. Short lyrics simply labeled “[signs]” draw on church billboards and a KFC poster that claims “‘we now have gizzards’” to underscore the narratives with messages: “make music of anything you have.” There is a larger history at stake in these personal accounts, a microcosmic experience that echoes back to the telescope of the opening. In “Relic,” the venom of family secrets long shelved flows into the present through a Klan robe: The first time I touched it, cloth fell under my fingers, ... no combustion at the touch of skin. ... The crown, I know, waits underneath, the hood with eyes stitched open, arch cap like a bishop’s, surging to its point. The Old South haunts even as it disappears. In “The Odds,” a lover negotiates an interracial relationship through hostile terrain, counting the cost of all it has taken to reach her beloved in the first place: I’d have to study magic
I’d have to put a spell on that girl then pull on my boots and tromp my way through the hanging vines skirt the gators squash the snakes suck their poison out of my own leg ... get permission from the judge or defy his order where there was no route, make one If I ever slept, I would lose the way But Richardson accepts the histories that have set the stage for these poems. Rather than erasing the role her ancestors have played, she beholds this heritage with a measured ambivalence, as does her forbear in “My Grandmother Plays Emily in Our Town:” She holds her palm out to feel the heavy drops as the curtains close, though she knows this rain is only the sound of rain. Richardson’s inaugural collection is not as hard-hitting as some of today’s new voices. The language is time-worn, and the turns are often subtle. The payoff is that the overall effect is more haunting than shocking—a refrain that plays over and over in the mind without quite remembering how it got there. These poems eschew the sentimentalism of glory-days nostalgia in favor of a New South that is sinuous in its own right, embracing the past with slit-eyed clarity while making a new way for love without the constraints of the past the way wisteria curls into burnt sharecroppers’ cabins, still here, and wraps the old headboards, floods across cots. Each word, humming, held— Rachel Richardson received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan and an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina. Among her awards are a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and a Hopwood Award. Her poems have been published through numerous venues, including the New England Review, Slate, and Southern Review.
The MFA Question by Brian R. Young and SLM Young Taking the two or three years out of your life to pursue a degree in creative writing is a serious commitment, especially for those fresh out of college—and let’s face it, 60% of creative writing MFA students matriculate between the ages of 21 and 28— that time could be spent pursuing a master’s degree in fields better suited to career development, gaining entry level experience that could form a more solid professional foundation, or touring the Cathedrals of Europe, seeking spiritual enlightenment in an ashram in India, or volunteering in South America. At twenty-two you feel like you can conquer the world, so spending three years with your nose in books, toiling away at a desk, and teaching a bunch of freshmen students composition seems like a magnificent sacrifice when you could be climbing Kilimanjaro, or whatever metaphorical mountain you desire climbing. On the other hand, making the decision to return to school to study creative writing when you are older, once you have earned a decent or well-paying job, or perhaps have a spouse or children to support, is likewise difficult, though with different sacrifices attached. As two graduates of MFA programs, we are not here to dissuade you from making that sacrifice and commitment—after all, we gained a great deal from our time in graduate school; we met each other, fell in love, and got married. We also gained a great deal of confidence in our own writing abilities, we gained knowledge, and we found out a lot about who we are as writers and as people, but what we did not gain from our MFA program was a career in writing. And this is, perhaps, what most prospectives want to know—what will I gain from the program I am about to enter? Are the time and the money and the energy spent worth it? There is no simple answer to this question, but the answer depends most on what you expect to gain from your experience. Knowing what you want to get out of a program will determine a lot of what you do get out of that program, but knowing what to expect is important too. Paying for it There are three main avenues for addressing the financial cost of getting an MFA. The first is a teaching assistantship, wherein tuition is covered and the student earns a monthly stipend, usually around a thousand dollars, to cover books and living expenses, in exchange for teaching freshman composition classes. You won’t be profiting monetarily from this work, though if you’ve
just finished college you may be more accustomed to living cheaply. The “profit” from teaching composition is the ability to teach, which isn’t always fun or luxurious, but will help you get by in the “real world” after the cocoon of graduate school is over. Another benefit that comes from teaching composition is that it requires you to develop a mastery of all the foundational components of writing through having to teach them. This does mean, however, that time which you could have spent writing or being with other writers will instead go into planning classes and grading essays. Teaching requirements vary among programs. Some ease you into teaching by pairing TAs with seasoned instructors; others require TAs to work as tutors or in writing labs. In our program, we taught one section the first semester and two sections thereafter. We also had the opportunity to teach one introductory creative writing class in our third and final year, which was exciting. The second avenue is the rare and coveted fellowship, which covers tuition and pays about the same as a teaching assistantship without the work of teaching, though there may be some requirements in terms of public readings or lectures. Though this sounds perfect, it does mean that you miss out on the experience of teaching and the bonding that goes on between fellow teaching assistants, mostly in the form of commiserating. And TAs will all secretly, or not so secretly, despise you. Finally, there are some programs that simply do not offer teaching assistantships and stipends, and the fellowships they offer are for only a few students, which means that you would be required to pay for it yourself, whether through an already accumulated fortune (at least thirty-five to forty thousand dollars) or through student loans. Obviously, if you have the money to simply pay for an MFA degree, this entire question of financial cost isn’t a concern, but for everyone else, we would strongly advise against taking on such a large amount of debt in order to acquire one. As we will address later, an MFA degree is unlikely to guarantee an immediate book deal or professorship. Student loan payments generally become due six to twelve months post-graduation, so your most immediate concern after finishing your MFA will be securing a way to repay the money instead of trying to publish and build a career as a writer. Full-time programs vs. Low-residency programs One of the most cherished things in life to a writer is community, a collection of others who read and write and whom you respect to provide feedback on your writing. To find such a community is rare and beautiful, but also necessary to the process of writing. And it’s fun. A fulltime MFA program will grant you access to a culture of writers. Earlier, we described graduate school as a cocoon, and a full-residency program is in many ways a tight, little enclosure where all of its members have similar passions and interests and a shared experience. You have classes and workshops together; you share cubby-sized office space and pitchers of beer; and you read and write and discuss craft and theory and the joy and misery of writing. And this is just the description of the other students in your program. Additionally, you will have contact with the professionals—your instructors, guest lecturers, and readers—who are able to provide you with advice, contacts, and support. On the other hand, low residency programs allow you to maintain a job or raise a family while also developing your writing. They are most advantageous to someone who is interested in
writing but unable or unwilling to immerse themselves in a situation where they will make almost no money for two or three years. One advantage of this type of program could be the ability to work with talented professors who live where it would be impossible for you to travel, although the quality of exchange that you will have with them will be vastly different than if you share the same physical community. You must rely on email exchanges or discussion boards, with all the difficulty in conveying nuance and complexity that they entail, rather than face-to-face conversation (though potentially this constant written correspondence may also help to improve your writing). We will admit to being of a different generation than the tech-savvy students coming up through the ranks today, students who will believe that Facebook interactions and email exchanges allow for the same sort of personal connection that face-to-face conversations provide. It is true that we believe in oldfashioned sitting down and talking, as well as hand-written comments on actual paper, but it seems that a low-residency program reliant upon technology will likely begin to have a wider appeal among younger students rather than simply the returning adult with work or familial responsibilities. Additionally, it isn’t just the classroom exchanges that make a full residency program more dynamic; it’s all the late night conversations in informal settings—where, after a few drinks, people start to say what they really think—that shake the foundations of what you think you know. You also learn about the people themselves, what ways of being a writer are possible and which you should consider. None of this can be conveyed by email or even video conferencing, and is unlikely to occur between virtual strangers who only meet in person once or twice a year. An MFA degree, unlike an MBA, is not about the end result, but rather the process of acquiring the degree and how it transforms you. We believe low residency programs invite the way of thinking that the degree is more important than what you go through to get it, which, though that may be true for business, isn’t for writing. The homogeny question One of the largest and most repeated objections to MFA programs is that they are a toxic environment where everyone is melted down to fit the same mold or where everyone, instead of learning from a master, fades into mere shadows or shoddy facsimiles of their professors. The criticism continues that what gets promoted is a brand of uncritical conformity towards a particular aesthetic and approach to writing and a knee-jerk hostility towards anything that differs from it. Students learn to write by consensus or committee, where their authentic concerns and style are sacrificed to meet the standards of the professor or what’s popular at the moment. It would be difficult for us to completely dismiss this idea, although we feel it is true that there are vast differences between the many MFA programs, such that while this might be an apt description of some programs, something different is also true for others. Our best advice may be to not only research the professors who teach at a certain program to see if you respect their writing style, but to find out what they are like in the classroom, how they teach and what they teach. If you aren’t sure exactly who you are as a writer, then entering a program where the teachers will seek to convert you to their aesthetic, and their aesthetic alone, is likely to be detrimental to your development. Similarly, there are many professors who ascribe to the belief that writing can’t be taught and programs that consider their candidates to already be artists. This type of
program will lack an attention to the teaching of craft, since if writing can’t be taught, then what would be the point? A good teacher of writing is one who is willing and able to teach rather than preach, who will get his hands inky, if not dirty, in the process, and who is dedicated to helping your writing grow rather than dictating what it should or should not be. What you will get out of it When one of us was applying to graduate school, she worked as a waitress. She would wait tables from 4pm until midnight, then go home and write through the night, sometimes for only an hour, sometimes until the sun came up. Then she’d sleep, shower, and do it all again. She had a great deal of freedom to simply write, but what she wanted was to grow as a writer. She craved an audience of her peers and feedback on her writing, so her goal in going to graduate school was simple: she wanted to become a better writer. Knowing your own goals as you enter a program and knowing what you are able to gain from a program is vital. For example, we went to grad school with a woman who wanted to write a book and be on Oprah; to our knowledge, she has never published a book. We also went to school with a woman who wanted to finish the book she had already started. She came in with sketches and an idea, and every workshop she would provide us with chapters of her book. We were a fairly accepting audience, so we did not attempt to move her drastically away from the kind of book she wanted to write. Not every program, as we’ve said, however, is created equal. Some people who apply to MFA programs do so because they believe it will make them into a professor or a famous writer. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just be famous? Well, if fame is your goal, then pursuing an MFA might actually be a detriment. Literary writing will in all likelihood not make you well-known or rich, and almost certainly lessen your tolerance for the kind of writing that is judged according to how well it sells rather than how skillfully it is written. From our experience, it also seems that an advanced degree may make you less desirable to hire because employers don’t want to have to pay you more. In terms of literary publication, it does seem that unless, like the second woman mentioned above, you are far enough along in the writing or publishing process that you really are only a couple of years away from success, it’s unlikely that you will find it in such a short time frame. There are hundreds if not thousands of people competing for every publication spot and contest, and finding the specific journals and presses that will connect you with the best audience for what you write takes serious consideration and work, as well as the advice of many people who know your writing. Of course you must first know who you are as a writer, before you can know whom to reach. We’ve heard that a reasonable time frame in which to accomplish this task is a decade—well beyond the scope of an MFA. This means you will need to work persistently after earning your degree to get published, most likely with less support and community than you had during the program. In terms of being a professor, the degree itself will not get the position for you. It takes extensive publication in literary magazines and at least one contest win or book publication to even have a chance, and then you are competing against many other applicants. Some graduates choose to continue their education by getting a PhD, which does allow for more community and time, but
is also by itself not a guarantee of a full-time job. Significant publication is paramount, and the path is more challenging and longer than many prospective graduate students expect. If you desire the time and space to grow as a writer, if you long to lock yourself into a room of your own with a cheap bottle of wine and an indecent amount of ramen noodles, if you want to strengthen your writing muscles, workout your brain, and stretch your imagination further than you knew it could go, then by all means, enroll in an MFA program. It will help you fill your toolbox, as they say, but it won’t give you a damn thing if you aren’t willing and determined enough to work for it. But then again, that’s true without an MFA degree too
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