Buried Letter Press March 2012 ÂŠ 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
MARCH 2012 ISSUE The Art of Advertising: Narrative in Television Commercials by Kirsten Clodfelter Social Awareness and Standup Comedy by Brett Tipton An Open Space: A Brief Interview with Bethani Turley on House-Shows by Matthew C. Mackey The Problem of Documentation by Brian Young Stuck between Grief and a Hard Place: A Review of Ashley Butlerâ€™s Dear Sound of Footstep by Carrie Chappell Art and the Sublime by Robert Balla The Draw of Memoir in an Age of Reality-based Everything by SLM Young
The Art of Advertising: Narrative in Television Commercials By Kirsten Clodfelter
This past January, after a five-year run, the clever, deal-finding Priceline Negotiator met his untimely demise in a fiery bus crash. After working as a spokesperson for Priceline for nearly a decade and a half, William Shatner (along with television viewers across the nation) bid farewell to the Negotiator. What feels important to point out here is that I’m describing a commercial—not a film or a made-for-TV movie or a sitcom, but a thirty-second-long advertisement for Priceline. In the limited capacity in which this character’s death was mentioned around the Internet, the commercial was referred to several times as a finale, the same language used to describe the end of a TV show that’s often run for multiple seasons. So, I started to wonder: Are commercials really capable of evoking a strong sense of story and creating characters that become so well-known that they have to be killed off in a finale before a new marketing idea can be developed? The Priceline Negotiator’s death would suggest that yes, they can. Though, to be fair, Budweiser employed a similar concept back in the mid-90s when two swamp chameleons, Frankie and Louie, attempt to have the popular Budweiser frogs assassinated by electrocution, supposedly because the Anheuser-Busch marketing team was ready to move on to something else. This leads me to believe that narrative and character development, even outside of more traditional storytelling avenues like books, movies, and television, are of considerable importance to the general public. What I discovered during the research process (as I am perhaps too young or too out-of-touch with TV to have known otherwise) is that this is not a new phenomenon. Commercials have focused on building narrative threads for a long time. The advertising documentary Art & Copy features and discusses a 1969 ad for the AMC Rebel, in which a frazzled driving instructor experiences repeated harrowing life-or-death incidents with a series of difficult students behind the wheel. Near the end of this minute-long commercial, the narrator explains, “It looks like Rebels are going to outlast the teachers.” The entire narrative takes place within this one commercial (and isn’t spread out over multiple iterations for months or years, like Budweiser or Priceline), but the idea is similar. Additionally, my father, when asked to recall popular recurring characters from commercials that pre-dated my own TV-viewing experience, talked excitedly about actress Clara Peller, the star of Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” ad campaign in the mid-1980’s, as well as Mr. Whipple, a grocery store manager who gruffly chided shoppers (mostly women) with his popular admonition: “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” in both print and television ads for more than twenty years. “I remember when I heard on the radio that Dick Wilson [who played Mr. Whipple] had died,” my father recounted. “It was so sad.” If an actor can become so widely recognized for his recurring role as a character in a commercial that it feels sad to viewers when he dies (remember too Jim Varney, best known for his commercial character Ernest P. Worrell, who grew so popular that it launched a spin-off TV series), and if a commercial character can come to be so recognizable that he has to be killed off in order to roll out a new marketing idea, what does this mean about the way a viewer craves a sense of story or familiar, recognizable characters? I don’t care so much about whether or not narrative helps influence viewers of an ad to buy something. I’m interested more in how narrative appeals to viewers on an emotional level (though of course these two issues are intertwined), about how fulfilling or meaningful that brief burst of story
can become. In an article about the importance of storytelling in an increasingly digital age, University of Texas professor Tracy Dahlby argues that the short attention spans of people living in a time of such fast-paced technology are ruining humans’ traditionally strong tie to this art form. In some regard, this may be true (though I would argue that plenty of brilliant, emotionally resonate, and complexly narrated flash fiction currently exists in the world alongside many great longer works). But what about when narrative and character are implied within the compressed span of a commercial, and (similarly to good flash fiction) the reader/viewer is tasked with carefully unpacking small details in order to more fully develop the richness of the narrative on their own—to fill in the gaps based on the available context to build the history and flesh out the characters and their arcs? In a way, can’t this successfully fulfill our need for quality story? (Not completely, of course, but it must have even a small opportunity of being worth some type of artistic value, the same way Hemingway’s six-word short is a lauded work despite its incredible brevity.) More importantly, don’t narrative commercials (despite what Dahlby argues) then work in service to build our imaginations and boost our creativity, as long as we’re willing to put in the effort? I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel even a fleeting sadness when the Priceline Negotiator died, in part because the commercial is meant to be humorous. But there are commercials that have successfully elicited a greater emotional reaction from me, and I think this is due to more than just the fact that I am, by my own admission, sometimes a bit sensitive. One example of this is a recent Volkswagen advertisement. The commercial opens with a young, blonde-haired boy as he’s purchasing a bike, asking the seller if it’s fast. This cuts to the young boy when he’s a few years older as he’s buying a moped. He asks the same question. Then we witness the boy as a teenager, shopping for what is presumably his first car, again asking the salesman if it’s fast. Finally, the viewer sees the boy as an adult, bent over a Volkswagen Jetta. When he stands up to talk to the salesman, we see that he has a baby strapped in a carrier that rests against his chest, and instead of questioning if the car is fast as he’s done before, he asks, “Is it safe?” This commercial makes me cry almost every time I see it. (I will admit that there is a little author bias here because I’m just weeks away from having a baby of my own, but I believe wholeheartedly that I would have this strong of an emotional response even if I weren’t about to become a first-time parent). There is so much story in these thirty seconds. We are introduced to a protagonist, about whom we can discern certain elements of his character—he is a daring, adventurous boy who cares about the speed of his ride. The viewer can assume he’s seeking some sort of thrill, perhaps that he’s a little bit dangerous and wild. He is maybe the loudest boy in his classroom at school, someone who is often told by his mother to please go outside, someone who jumps without hesitation from the highest platform on the playground during recess. We recognize something familiar in this boy as a teenager too—the disheveled hair, the backpack, the slightly crooked smile he offers the salesman after being told, “I don’t even know if it’s street legal.”—This is a boy we might have seen laughing with a group of friends at his locker in high school or who currently lives on our block. But then, something in his life changes. He meets a partner—someone who calms him, who brings him purpose, and together they have a baby. We imagine a romance, a love story. Now his priorities have shifted. He has stopped chasing the thrill and seeking danger, those urges replaced by the responsibility and care he feels toward his small family. We could perhaps also imagine a different scenario, one in which our protagonist feels forced into this new life, asking the question of safety out of obligation, feeling resentful toward the new baby and his uptight spouse, but I don’t think so. Part of my reason for not feeling this way is selfish (the first version is so much more poignant and lovely), but another, more relevant reason is rooted in the way I have been taught over the years to read a character. I judge the tone of the protagonist’s voice when he asks the question, I see the expression on his face, and these things
indicate sincerity, a type of gentleness or gratitude—there is more at stake for him now, his life holds a different kind of value. From a marketing perspective, I’m not sure how much narrative matters. (Until I factchecked this article, I was for weeks incorrectly attributing this ad to Nissan, possibly because that’s what kind of car I already drive.) What Volkswagen did do successfully was elicit a significant emotional reaction from me, which didn’t make me interested in their product but did pique my curiosity about the commercial itself, about what it’s saying, well beyond the half a minute that it was on my television screen. I have found myself, from time to time since I first saw it, thinking about it unsolicited. This seems like the biggest victory (though for whom I’m not exactly sure, since Volkswagen is certainly most interested in how this advertisement is boosting their sales)—that this commercial hints at a narrative significant enough to be remembered, that it has become a story.
Social Awareness and Standup Comedy by Brett Tipton I started doing standup comedy while I was teaching college speech classes. I was looking for ways to involve my students, and one way was to show clips of comedians. The laughter woke people up. I was able to talk about the content and delivery in their bits. I began to become intrigued and wondered if I could do it too. In class I was naturally funny. At times I would have students laughing for hours. But were they just laughing, or were they also learning? At first I wasn’t sure. The one thing I knew for sure was they Jon Stewart were awake. It was a starting point for education. I had their attention. What I was experiencing on stage began to resonate with what was happening in the classroom. I began to see laughter as a tool to help shape society—at least in terms of shaping the thoughts and feelings of the people immediately in front of me? I began to see that my humor was helping to bring about changes in my students. At first it was just a change in attitude. Many of them enjoyed attending class. Then I began to see that creating a fun, laughter-filled environment was helping material to stick. By smacking their funny bones, I was impacting their thoughts and feelings. Picture a comedian on stage—not me, but a great comedian like Bill Cosby or George Carlin. The audience hangs on every word. They also must experience the “a-ha” moment, that magical instant when the audience gets the joke and laughter erupts. A headlining comedian will foster these moments of understanding on average four to six times per minute. The great Phyllis Diller set the high-level mark of a comedic burst of twelve laughs per minute and could average around ten laughs per minute for an hour-long act. No doubt there was shared understanding and a deep emotional connection between her and her audience. Can this shared understanding and deep emotional connection be used to shape the ideas of the audience? George Carlin certainly believed so. One of his more famous bits was called “Stuff.” He uncovered how we seek stuff, store stuff, and love stuff. It uncovered a great deal of truth about the materialism of American society. He shoved a mirror in our faces, and we laughed at what we saw. His comedy has also shaped society. Perhaps his most famous bit was “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” It uncovered the issue of media censorship and led the audience to conclude the frivolity of it. Carlin shared an era with other comic shapers of society such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, but is the age of socially aware comedians a thing of the past? Lewis Black, Penn and Teller, and Jeff Foxworthy are contemporary comedians who uncover and shape our opinions on religion, politics, relationships, and life. I’m not going to saying every comedian is a torrential force of social change, but some have been. For a moment, let’s focus on two comedians stepping forward to use their talents to heighten social awareness: Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Recently Colbert started a political super PAC. The whole process of formation and the functioning of the super PAC are being broadcast on air. It all began when he had a campaign lawyer, Trevor Potter, visit his show, and they signed the paperwork. Most recently, Colbert turned over control of his super PAC to Stewart. Colbert visited Stewart’s The Daily Show where the two had a discussion on air with Potter on speakerphone. They were addressing candidates not being allowed to coordinate with their super PAC. Stewart shared in
intimate detail what the PAC was doing and its plans for the future. All the while Colbert responded, “I cannot coordinate in any way.” His displeasure or joy with Stewart’s activities was apparent by the tone of his voice. Repeatedly they questioned Potter if they could proceed in this manner. Even though clear coordination was evident, their lawyer’s repeated response was that they were not doing anything illegal. It was also revealed that no one has gone to jail solely for coordinating. They could be fined, but super PAC funds could be used to pay the fines. At one point Stewart called the super PAC a, “staggering amount of money with almost no limitations.” Stewart began one show by using super PAC funds to hire Chef Beau MacMillan to cook him a gourmet meal. He took it over the top by having Chef Beau chew a portion of food for him. It made a strong point about how super PAC funds could be spent frivolously. In a piercing example of political satire the super PAC ran an ad comparing Mitt Romney to a serial killer. Romney is quoted as saying, “Corporations are people.” It was then brought out that as head of Bain Capital he was in charge of chopping corporations up. Being that corporations are people, Romney was given the moniker of “Mitt the Ripper”. Interestingly, according to Politco, in a January 10th South Carolina poll Colbert beat former Republican candidate Jon Huntsman as the Republican candidate for president by 5 percent of the vote compared to Huntsman’s 4 percent. Currently, Colbert is in the exploratory phase of running for president. Whether this is just a tremendous piece of political satire or a real campaign remains to be seen. What is apparent is that Colbert and Stewart have become the comedic equivalent of elder statesmen, mixing humor, friendship, and investigative reporting to enlighten their audiences about the political process. Step-by-step they are uncovering for viewers the process of running for president. It’s the unmasking of our political process in an entertaining and insightful manner. This comedic duo has become a force of social awareness, but what about all those no-name comedians working in small clubs and coffee houses? Do they impact society? Perhaps not in such a grandiose fashion, but they do impact the society in front of them. Even if there are only a handful of people in the room, they have made a deep connection with some of those people. Connecting with others gives us hope and strength and is the most human of experiences. Comedy is a powerful force of social change. In the classroom it helps embed ideas deep into the learner’s psyche. On the comic’s stage it becomes a tool to connect deeply with others, and that connection becomes a conduit through which ideas are shared and thoughts are challenged. In the hands of Stewart and Colbert it has become a force permeating the airwaves to challenge the status quo. Laughter is the grand emotion and those who grab our hearts move our minds.
An Open Space: A Brief Interview with Bethani Turley on House-Shows
by Matthew C. Mackey I wasn’t sure what to expect. I used to go to house-shows when I was accustomed to sleeping in my clothes, familiar to waking up with strangers, but that seemed a long time ago. The Highland Square area of Akron is notorious for its alternative presence. This was a place for the fringe, the artistic, the bearded hipster, the cardigan scenester. Socially awkward was socially accepted. Everyone was either a musician or musically conscious, and all the bands people liked were too obscure to know. I live there. It is home, and I own both a beard and a cardigan. It is a place to be someone and no one at the same time, a place to remain socially anonymous. The choice is liberating. So, when I got to the Blueberry House, I was glad to see a large crowd had gathered, braving the cold and solitude of an Ohio February. In the basement, a local band began setting up equipment, tuning guitars, plucking fiddles, and picking the strings of a banjo to discern its tune. The Blueberry House, aptly named for its memorable bright blue exterior, is known for basement shows. Being a grad student and part-time employee, any show for me was a matter of economy. Free and open were bold enough lures to tempt me out of my hiding places. There was no stage, so people pushed toward the glow of the table lamps behind the band, edging closer to the performers and each other. The band, Fast Molasses, slowly burned through the amps, bending the cold, silent expectation of the basement into a warm malleable glow. Chris “Fast” Smith and Shawn “Molasses” Wee blended an amber southern folk sincerity with a silver romanticism of ambient interpretation. I liked them almost immediately, and the lamps were like angler fish tempting us out of dark corners. As the band played on, people began to move. Dancing or something like dancing destroyed any notion of isolation. We mingled, each of us a new language, meeting another. The air broke with a new translation. We let simple pleasure of sound and movement be our guides. Out of some dark and cold secret night within us, we began to realize, precisely, the relationship between existence and experience. We wanted no separation. When the first band finished, we left the basement to smoke cigarettes on the front porch. “Are you enjoying the show?” she asked out of nowhere. “Yeah, it’s really great,” I said. “I’m Matt.” “Bethani,” she said, exhaling a cigarette. “Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. “Pleasure,” I said. “Do you know the band?” “Yeah, they’re friends of mine.” “Cool,” I said as coolly as possible. “You’ve seen them before I take it.” “Yeah, a couple of times. They always put on a good show.” “How did you hear about this show?” “I live here,” she said, her red lips flashing.
I smiled, “Oh, wow. Nice.” “Yeah, we put on these shows every once in a while.” “Oh yeah?” I cocked an eyebrow. “How often do you do these?” I asked, politely blowing my smoke up away from her face. She adjusted her glasses and brushed her bangs away from her eyes. “As often as possible, really. We started back in the spring of 2009 and have been running them ever since.” “Why? I mean, why do you run them? Seems like it could be a lot of work.” “Lots of reasons I guess. I like people having fun in my house. I like people being able to experience music in a very direct and personal way. It’s not as much work as you might think.” “Sure. I assume you guys have a lot of fun, then? Are your roommates okay with everything?” “Ah, yeah, I’ve had a lot of different reactions. Sometimes, they’re angry. Sometimes, they sleep through the show. Sometimes they help me book bands.” “And other times?” “Ha. It’s a strange thing inviting strangers into your house.” “It’s a lot different, I imagine, than going to a show at a large venue.” We finished our cigarettes. “You want to smoke another?” she said. “Oh yeah.” I grabbed my pack of Cheapo lights and threw one in my mouth. “Can I bum one,” she asked. “Yeah,” I laughed. I had a suspicion that she never had a pack on her. A perpetual bummer. Her face flickered in the flash of the lighter, settling to a slow apricot glow on her cheeks as the ember dragged. “It is a lot different. It’s sort of anti-hierarchical. There’s no barrier between the musicians and the audience, or between musicians and other musicians for that matter. We all come together for the sake of the art. I don’t tell the bands when to play or who should play first or how long, but I also don’t pay the bands either. It’s communal music I guess. My hope is that with each of our shows, we get to experience great music and meet new faces.” “Yeah, I can see that. You get a lot of new faces coming around for shows?” “Well, yours is new.” “To you maybe.”. “A lot of people come out, and since we don’t have a large venue or charge for shows, it’s a weird anti-commodification of music and performance. Being able to pay the musicians would be great, but I can’t afford that, so I like taking the music and show out of the hands of someone who wants to sell it back to you. Sovereignty isn’t something that is given to you, but that you give to yourself.” I inhaled and blew my smoke over my right shoulder. I was thinking about what she said. The next band was starting to warm the house up through the floorboards. I looked at her and smiled, careful not to betray a sense of intoxication. I wasn’t quite ready to head back inside anyway. “Any crazy things happen at these house-shows?” She laughed, “Yeah, there are a few. We’ve had the cops called, not for being loud, but someone thought someone pulled a gun on someone else. One night a guy stayed until five in the morning, eating all my pasta and pesto. I wanted to go to bed so bad, but he just seemed to stay forever. I think he had a crush on me or something,” She smiled. “But, that’s what happens at house- shows.” We both took long pulls on our cigarettes. Oh, god,” she said laughing. “I don’t know.” “Well, I’m glad I found out about it. It’s been a lot of fun so far. The band’s great and the conversation has been wonderful, thank you.”
“Yeah, you too. This is why I love having open, free shows. It’s about the art and community and how we all connect, read each other, ya know? Look around. People are having a good time, enjoying the music, sharing laughs or conversations. It creates a unique place for everyone to meet. It’s rare these days to have a venue for art that creates an open space of equality. It’s about potential and possibility.” She smiled and snuffed her cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray. We were alone on the porch. The crowd had long since gone in and gathered around the light. When we stopped talking, we could hear the music. “Fuck, it’s cold,” she said. “Let’s go in and listen.” We walked into the basement as the band started playing another tune. The lights dashed in our eyes as sounds of solidarity filled our ears. It was a nice place to be, and for a stranger’s house, it felt like home.
The Problem of Documentation by Brian Young
Last month, I wrote about the value of spontaneity in writing in addition to craft. I’ve been thinking more about how the mechanisms of the MFA system can operate to reinforce a devotion to craft at the expense of other possibilities, especially when it comes to careerbuilding and publication. Poems that are not scrutinized and live in the moment make far less successful artifacts, and therefore do not as effectively serve the purpose of promoting the author or advancing her or his career as a well-wrought poem, so the temptation for aspiring writers to gravitate more towards craft is understandable. All of this comes to mind on the eve of the AWP conference, which Anis Shivani says, in the article I discussed last month, “celebrates pedagogy and publication and prestige.” It is important to consider the interrelationship between these three P’s, and how they function to limit artistic expression, operating as much through the self-censorship of young artists who pursue the career path in academia, as anything that is imposed externally on the artist by those who are already established. In terms of publication, Shivani looks towards the annual AWP conference, where “[t]he apprentices, of course, constitute the overwhelming number of attendees, so the ritual gathering becomes a celebration above all of the potential of apprentices to aspire to higher levels. There is the vast book-fair at the AWP, the huge exhibition a tangible expression of production…” With the focus of artistic pursuit so squarely on the documentation of a successfully crafted poem, one that has passed through the fire of revision and an editorial process and now stands as a refined object after its publication, a suggestion is made about what an artist must devote his or her energies to in order to receive recognition, though this fact is never acknowledged. Shivani states that “writing produced under the guild system has the dual purpose of not only functioning as writing but also as social manifesto for the guild system which produced such writing.” The claim of “social manifesto” seems exaggerated, but he does have a point about the message aspiring writers receive concerning how much they need to pursue a craft-focused revision and editorial process. Judging by the current state of publishing as reflected at conferences like AWP, and academia as shown by who gets hired to Creative Writing Professorships, it doesn’t seem that one can be recognized as a master in their artistic pursuits without a lengthy paper trail of documentation. Pedagogy, with its focus on close reading and its anthologies, how-to manuals, and reading lists, also maintains the status quo by promoting the system of recognition and emphasis on craft. The presentation of a canon of writers, whose well-crafted works speak across time, is an important part of developing as a writer, but it doesn’t account for the potential of the spontaneous and un-documentable. In workshops, Shivani states, “humiliation is very much part of this enforcement of Inquisition rules.” He overreaches here, generalizing about hostility in the workshop climate. Rarely did I experience anyone attempting to use the moment to castigate those who do not conform to any set standard of rules. Nearly all of my peers genuinely wanted a piece of writing to succeed on its own terms and were willing to withhold suggesting their own methods if they didn’t seem to benefit the piece being discussed. However, there is something inherent to the approach of close reading and line crafting that, when it encounters a mistake, can react by
expunging it, rather than following the lack of polish, the roughness of sound, or the inconsistency in perspective or grammar, to see what it contributes to a poem’s effect. Occasionally, something that couldn’t have been calculated beforehand surfaces. The challenge is this: how does one make an art that escapes documentation, transcends it, or is somehow impossible to document? I don’t think that self-publishing could serve as a valid alternative. Although it attempts to step outside of the current system of production, what Shivani harshly calls “the harsh controls over quantity of output,” which I see more as an understandable focus on the important contribution of craft that has the unfortunate side-effect of discouraging spontaneity, it still operates in line with the rules of documentation, and asks to be scrutinized in terms of craft rather than realizing other possibilities. Digital publishing or blogs also do not escape from the production of artifacts; they just produce more of them. Shivani says that “all the present trends in publishing—certainly the rise of digital publishing—herald continued strength for the MFA guild.” I don’t see the MFA system as pessimistically as he does, other than wanting to see it develop a greater range of artistic expression. Likewise, an attempt to escape the treadmill of publication and prestige by, for example, fleeing to a cave in the mountains or burning all one’s poems after they are written, would sever the connection to community and audience that any artist who believes in what they are doing deserves. Writing into the void leaves the poet cut off from her or his world, and all of the possibilities for connection and inspiration that it contains, with only the dim hope of a future reader who may never materialize. I believe that almost all of what makes good art important has to do with the experience of it—how sharing a work of art, whether it has been carefully wrought or results from a flash of inspiration, both informs and enriches the lives of the audience and the work of the artist. Unlike the carefully revised poem, which lives more fully on the page, though it can be performed for an audience and appreciated, a more spontaneous art thrives in the interior of those who experience it and in the air between them. Spontaneous art is perfect when everyone involved is moved, whether it serves to “stir or provoke or enlighten or anger or frustrate or cajole” as Shivani would like a reading to do. And yet, when one returns to the documentation—to the printed poem—one has to put aside all the rules and habits of craft and consider not just the artifact but the rhetorical context of the event as well in order to understand what happened. So how can an appreciation of and a respect for artists who step away from obsessive craft and documentation be encouraged? The granting of some professorships and residencies to artists who embrace spontaneity and performance, as well as who carefully craft poems and actively seek to publish them, could provide a different path for young artists, and push writing beyond its current restraints. If creative writing professors designed classes where students pursued artistic interests not so readily documented, and these interests were appreciated and valued, the skills that artists learn there might also be practiced more in the larger writing community.
Stuck between Grief and a Hard Place: A Review of Ashley Butler’s Dear Sound of Footstep by Carrie Chappell
In her memoir Dear Sound of Footstep, Ashley Butler confronts the loss of her mother and estrangement from her father in a series of essays that investigate the space—its figurative and literal measurements—of absence. In both stark and serious examinations, Butler tackles not only the emotional idiosyncrasies of her own bereavement but also the larger-scale, human mannerisms of grief. Writing about grief is no new topic, yet Butler’s essays resist any conventional introspection and rather explore the emotional scope of loss through the narratives of scientific discovery and through the frontier of space travel. Butler’s collection alternates between installments of memoir and essay, enabling the reader to slowly and cosmically digest the complexities of the relationship between the personal and scientific theories on absence. At once grounded and illusory in all their earthy and celestial details, Butler’s essays tease out, in their attention to what defines the space of loss, our earthly yet infinite relationship with absence, its echoes and timely metamorphoses. Dear Sound of Footstep begins in the haunted prose of a time, July 1999, in which she recollects her mother’s battle with breast cancer. Though her narration is straightforward, her sense of time is scattered. She addresses the mental fragility of Civil War veterans, recounting J.M. Da Costa’s research that found the soldiers “confused past and present” (5). She goes further back in time, 1688, to Johannes Hofer identifying the medical syndrome of nostalgia, “the patient’s desire to return to a home that no longer exists” (5). Finally, in her time travel, Butler takes us to her mother’s body, a landscape she is not afraid to explore in its deterioration, recalling her mother showing her “the hole where her left breast used to be” (6). From the outset, Butler defines her relationship with grief as something both intimate yet analytical. She is not merely looking at the loss of her mother; she is looking at the condition of loss. The motif of her collection—humans in space as a symbolic relationship for humans in grief, an emotion that Butler seeks to define through ideas of eternity and infinity—is powerful. She accomplishes this metaphor through her narrative technique, her lyric jump. From her mother’s literal hospital bed, Butler takes us to a different atmosphere, the sky. We see a man falling through the clouds, and in his survival of the fall, he is left with “a pattern of the zipper from his flight suit…as if he might later undo himself, peer into a Plexiglas-cased heart” (11). Butler tells us her own story of the sky, her mental daydream of being “dans les nuages” to which her high school French teacher eventually remarks “you must return someday [from the clouds]” (14). The stories go on as Butler theorizes the distinctions between the clouds and the earth, dreams and reality, grief and dying. In these particulars, Butler shows us the difference between the two points (earth and sky), but also reveals the “theoretical construction” of that space (9). She suggests in relating the loss of her mother with the dimensionless space of space that in defining what is boundless, we make parameters. Small or large, Butler seems to say, the space we allow grief to make in our mental space marks a progress away from or towards that which was initially too huge or horrible to conceive of. In her essay “Bridge,” Butler reveals, in one of the most personal essays of the book, what could be considered the idea conceit of the collection. Illustrated in a series of shifty, shapeless memories, Butler tells us of the disorientation of her grief. As she is jogging under the Manhattan Bridge into a construction, Butler is mentally wandering back in time to scenes of her mother’s illness, her parent’s complicated marriage, and the halls of her high school. She stops in the story’s real time to regard a construction vehicle, and she “let[s] [her] eyes linger on the impression the
machine has left in the ground and consider[s] how an absence could take on force” (21). It is in this moment that we realize what Butler is emotionally considering too. Given the context of her memories, Butler is transfixed by the idea of the mark she cannot see, the one most definitely occupied by the absence of her mother, her father too. After “Bridge,” though, Butler takes an even sharper turn up to the sky, distancing her musings from her own grief, as if the abstractions will aid in revelation. In this celestial and scientific tour, Butler shows us the impact of space exploration, experimentation, as a general pursuit of humans through time. In showing us how man through time has tried to occupy the infinity of space (read grief), she reveals to us the definitions of our own space, how infinity shapes both our spiritual and corporeal existence. She shows us the Russian Father of Cosmonautics, Tsiolkovsky, and his ideas on space travel in the early 1900s. She shows us the evidence of Tsiolkovsky and like-minded scientists’ existence by outlining the landscape of the moon, each crater named after a man who contributed to the understanding of space travel. She tells us of the first moon burial of Eugene Shoemaker, Father of the Science of Near-Earth Objects, in 1999. In the telling of these stories, Butler asks us to consider each lunar grave as somehow suggesting the space of absence a man and his ideas can possess as something both infinite and defined by its material monument. Still, though, Butler does not give us this idea of absence and space as a rule, rather as a theory, because by her story “Crime Scene,” we know that Butler thinks that “cremation is better, you take up less room” (57). And so we begin to wonder what Butler is doing exactly in her magnifying and minimalizing of space and its ability to house human and emotional remains. Butler’s collection continues to reform and prefabricate story so as to examine the faculties of space, as they are vast and imparticularly particular. Her middle and later essays introduce Butler’s other narrative strategy—to point out that through the creation and retelling of story, another and new infinite space is formed. Each story is easily directed back to her mother’s loss. In no way does Butler talk about the coffin of Houdini without implying her mother’s coffin. These deaths are too close in the collection, too enamored with the same magic, the same disappearing act for them to be considered unrelated. In narrating Houdini’s story, Butler brings him back to life. In this way, she is immortalizing her mother, too, creating her mother’s afterlife living space in words and letters. Butler’s collection ends with the stories of place that dissolves space, collapses boundaries into a different kind of infinity. In her last essay, Butler visits an anechoic chamber, a space where “the only sound that exists is the sound, which derives from a source…an environment in which one may find how the body leads itself astray” (115). The anechoic chamber is the antithesis to Butler’s long trail of metaphors and anecdotes that explain and endorse the idea of a spacious absence. In an anechoic chamber, Butler is only able to derive sound (meaning of existence, sense of space and self) if it is derivative of Butler. In this way, the anechoic chamber is the place where absence cannot sound off or be occupied by anything; it is nothingness and nowhere. In this setting of deprivation, Butler imagines both torture and freedom. From the chamber, she takes us to her late mother’s bedroom: “There was a sense of stillness in her room that could have been mistaken for order and an order that begged a kind of presence by which absence might be measured” (116). Butler writes near the end of her collection that “Anechoic literally means without echo,” and so she leaves us to wonder how in definitions of absence, we understand what an anti-space means. In this book, Butler does not want to say what we should do with our dead; instead she just takes us to the grief, points right at the rotting body, takes us to sky, points to the openness above, and asks us gently to interpret what exists in the infinite in between.
Art and the Sublime
by Robert Balla I (and I’m sure you have experienced this as well) have often been struck dumb, in awe, when experiencing something truly wonderful. You know, the feeling you get when you hear a particular piece of music or see a painting or read a passage in a book that takes your breath away. It stirs something in your soul. Philosophers through the ages have tried to explain this, to find the source of this mystical effect. They have referred to it as experiencing the sublime, or sublimity, and it is precisely this sublimity that is the source of the greatest works of art. For when we experience truly great art, the observer and the observed cease to exist as discrete entities and conflate into one new unit, which is both more and different from a simple union or merger. As this happens, the rest of existence, or at least our perception of it, ceases to be. We only become aware of this process after the experience has ended and we are released from the grasp of the sublime. In his Critique of Judgment, Emanuel Kant says, “We call that sublime which is absolutely great.” It is important to note that Kant makes a clear distinction between what is beautiful and what is truly sublime by noting that beauty “is connected with the form of the object” in that it fits nearly perfectly our definition of what the general category of the object should be. In other words, a beautiful flower is one which most or almost perfectly fits our definition of what a flower is. Kant’s belief is that the source of this categorical ideal is outside of the human sphere, a type of a priori knowledge. However, the sublime “is to be found in a formless object,” where the object transcends the categorical ideal and achieves “boundlessness.” Here we can picture the human being experiencing something. Then the mind tries to assign this experience the appropriate category (this is the cognitive process by which we can identify all dogs as dogs, or flowers as flowers, or symbols as symbols without having to experience every single dog, flower, or symbol). Sublimity then occurs, according to Kant, when the mind is unable to put the experience or object into a category because it exceeds the bounds of the category; it is beyond perfection. When this happens, the mind goes into a kind of overdrive as it struggles to categorize, and this leads to the euphoric feeling that accompanies the sublime. If Kant’s Critique of Judgment provides an explanation of the feelings we have when we experience the sublime, then On the Sublime, attributed to the 1stCentury C.E. Greek/Roman philosopher Longinus, uncovers the sources of or the foundational elements of sublimity. Interestingly, the first question Longinus seeks to answer is not what sublimity is (and Kant does a better job of this anyway), but rather if it is an art (by which he means craft) that can be trained, improved, or even mastered. If so, then the art of sublimity is something of great use to all artists from poet to painter because “the amazement and wonder [generated by the sublime] exert invincible power and force and get the better of every hearer” or viewer. Longinus states that the five primary sources or components of sublimity are (1) “the power to conceive great thoughts” which have an emotional effect on the composer, (2) “strong and inspired emotion,” (3) figures or tropes, (4) metaphor, and (5) arrangement. The first two are prima fascia emotion, while others seek to generate emotion. Thusly, the sublime occupies a strange
middle ground where it is both divinely inspired and a trainable and learnable craft as 1 and 2 are natural and seemingly beyond the control of the artist or aspiring artist, and 3, 4, and 5 are developed and hopefully perfected through practice. But even in Longinus’s first source there is room for human influence because as he writes, “Even if [natural greatness] is a matter of endowment rather than acquisition, we must, so far as is possible, develop our minds in the direction of greatness and make them always pregnant with noble thoughts.” That is to say, while the lightning strike of inspired thought comes from outside of the self, the true artist must make the vessel ready to accept it in order to be capable of producing something which is truly sublime. When Longinus does attempt to define the sublime or sublimity, he falls short of Kant’s clarity. Instead he moves towards a discussion of how we can differentiate between something which is truly sublime and worthy of the highest praise and something which is merely aesthetically beautiful. Like Kant, Longinus draws clear distinctions between the two, and we as modern artists or consumers of art can and should do the same. In this way we welcome the art which moves us on a deep, emotional level. It is this sublime art that has the power to make audiences receptive to large, society sharing ideas. This is Picasso’s “Guernica” and Ginsburg’s “Howl” which both moved generations to grand political action. Conversely, allowing ourselves this distinction between the sublime and the aesthetic is where we open ourselves to seeing the value of and enjoying the aesthetic beauty of a catchy pop song by Katie Perry or a cheesy watercolor with happy bunnies and mountains by Bob Ross without having to justify our guilty pleasures. Longinus says of sublimity that it “is a kind of eminence or excellence of expression. It is the source of the distinction of the very greatest of poets and prose writers and the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame.” And isn’t this what artists strive to achieve? Shakespeare concludes Sonnet XVII with: So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. The Bard knew of the sublimity of his love and of his own words. It is through this excellence of expression, whereby the audience connects with the true mind of the artist, that communication goes beyond the limitations of base words, or paint, or clay, or music, or movement, and the connection becomes one of two minds. For although we are unable to physically see the sublime beauty that he experienced, his words, imbued with the sublimity of his subject, become sublime in their own right. Thusly we experience the sublime beauty by sharing a mind with the artist. And what of the “eternal life” of the artist’s fame? According to Longinus, the truly sublime never loses its power over the audience, its effects are never dimmed by time or repeated inspection, for the TRULY sublime is fully universal and all observers, in all nations, from all times will be awestruck by it. Living in a post-modern world, it is easy to scoff at the eternal nature of the sublime, but consider the seemingly eternal grandeur and appeal of Shakespeare’s best sonnets, or that of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. There are canonical figures and works for a reason. While we may argue on specifics and about what exactly should be included, every artistic field has its hallowed ground, its sacred figures that no matter what oppositions arise will be revered as the pinnacle of expression. Often we find the arguments about the cannon are about what else to include, not about what is no longer worthy. The sublime is there. It has an effect. It can be discovered. It can be created but never destroyed. It can be augmented but never reduced. The sublime is the way that artist and audience become one. We experience it, and when we do, we are enriched by it.
The Draw of Memoir in an Age of Reality-based Everything by SLM Young The increased popularity over the last several decades of true-life stories, namely memoir, has raised the seemingly unceasing question, “Why?” Why memoir and why now are questions that have been undertaken by reporters, critics, professional writers, and bloggers, and they seem to be questions that no one can quite find an answer with which anyone is content. What I have ascertained through my own research in attempting to answer these questions is that the reasons for people’s obsession with reading true stories are both personal and political; they are a result of shifts in media, literature, and how we see ourselves and others. To put it simply, it’s complicated. As a result, I have decided to devote not just one but a few months to answering, or attempting to answer, the question of why people are so interested in reading true stories. I will begin with perhaps the most negative of the reasons why people read memoir—our society has become increasingly narcissistic and obsessed with promoting the self. I would like for you to consider what seem to be opposing occurrences: first, the fact that since the late 1970s print newspaper circulation has been declining; second, since the 1980s viewership of network news broadcasts has also been declining; and, third, since approximately the same time, publication of memoir has increased so much that publishers, according to Michael Cader, now accept more memoirs than debut novels. This type of book has been increasing for years, but the genre seems to have exploded recently. In his book Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda reports that “According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. book sales, total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than400 percent between 2004 and 2008.” Why is it that so many people have become interested in reading “true-life” stories while simultaneously growing increasingly disinterested in knowing anything “newsworthy”? A major impact on the news industry was the deregulation of the broadcast industry under Ronald Reagan. Prior to deregulation, there was an obligation by media companies to provide the public with relevant news programming, there were guidelines for minimal news and public affairs programming, and maximums for advertisements per hour. After deregulation, the FCC eliminated these guidelines, as well as the rules that kept companies from owning multiple news outlets. In other words, businesses could now use public airwaves for private profit without considering the public good. It is up to the individual news outlet to consider their own ethics and decide to serve their community or their own pockets. It wasn’t long before news no longer took precedence, and entertainment did. One of the perhaps unforeseen consequences of deregulation was the blurring between news and entertainment. Consider for a moment two programs: The Daily Show and Entertainment Tonight. The first is a comedy show that masquerades as news, or a news program that masquerades as comedy; either way, what I notice is the public’s impatience with a news program that is just and only that—hard-hitting news. We need to take our medicine the way that Mary Poppins would suggest—with a spoonful of sugar—otherwise we don’t want to take it at all. The second program is a quote-unquote news program that focuses all of its attention on the one area of life that people still seem completely interested—entertainment. There is nothing that can be learned from watching such a show, except to see the latest red carpet fashion or hear about celebrity divorce, and yet, this type of “news” is what most people seem to want to know. This blurring of news and entertainment—let’s call it a fusion of fact and fiction for a moment—has resonance in the world of memoir since combining a real tale with the flourish of
fictional elements is what memoir is known for. Unfortunately, memoir is also known for the literal blurring of fact and fiction because of the many scandals the genre has generated as a result of lies being published as truth, from Lillian Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento to Greg Mortenson’s recently published Three Cups of Tea. As for the decline in newspaper circulation, many of you may be thinking that it is a simple side effect of the internet, though as I mentioned earlier, the decline began in the 1970s, long before the internet boomed. Peter Preston, a British journalist, in his article “The Curse of Introversion” does not dismiss the impact the internet has had on the newspaper business, though he indicates that the “problem was burgeoning long before doom topped media agencies. America’s top 20 papers were sliding steadily in sales—a point or more down every year—before the Net crossed their horizon.” Preston suggests the larger problem in the newspaper industry is that we have “introversion to deal with. Introversion means that we adjust slowly to change, if we adjust at all. Introversion means we don’t notice the world changing around us . . . [we have] a blinkered refusal to make connections or form fresh alliances. Introversion brings a kind of imbecility along with it.” Introversion, though, hasn’t merely affected the newspaper industry. I believe if we investigate these two forces that have influenced our declining interest in the news—entertainment value and introversion—we will understand, to at least some degree, why we also have become obsessed with “truth”: learning it about others and telling our own. Consider for a moment what news has been replaced with: Facebook, Twitter, websites and “news” programs devoted to celebrities, some of whom have done nothing more to earn their celebrity status than lose on a game show or be the daughter of someone rich. We are obsessed with being entertained, but not merely being entertained, but having a role in that entertainment, being the entertainment. We, too, can be celebrities, and even if we aren’t, we can still write a book about how we’ve overcome something tragic, and then we will become famous. And if we haven’t overcome something truly tragic, then we can always lie about it, and when the public finds out, we’ll have to deal with the humiliation, and at least we’ll have overcome that ordeal. Social media websites seems to be the perfect vehicle for the introverted—we do not have to actually interact with anyone. We choose our “friends” and watch the same people over and over again, posting what they have done or what they are about to do. There is no real need for branching outside our comfort zone, meeting new people, or learning anything beyond our current scope of experience. Despite the supposed goal of Facebook to “connect” everyone, people sit isolated in their tiny worlds of the screen, and if you ask, none of them would admit to missing out on the real world in favor of the world in their phones. They believe their world is the phone. In some small way, memoir would seem to be a remedy to this isolation—we can enter the life of another, the mind of another, and walk around in her shoes for a while, understand what it means to be someone else. In a 1999 article, Lee Gutkind, creator of the journal Creative Nonfiction and “godfather” of the genre, attributes the popularity of nonfiction to the rise in reality television, our decrease in personal connections, and a shift in our willingness to bare our souls without the stigma of embarrassment. It seems to me that while on the surface these three reasons may seem disparate, they are, in fact, interrelated. Reality Television programs, from Survivor to The Jerry Springer Show, taught us that not only can everyone be famous, anyone can be famous, and you don’t have to be the winner to be rewarded. As long as you can continue to persuade someone to be interested, you can parlay your fifteen minutes into a lifetime of fame. This television format also taught us attention isn’t just bestowed upon public figures or that old-fashioned version of “celebrity”; anyone willing to bare her soul and tell her story can also become a celebrity. The same “lesson” has been exercised on social media websites—we post for others to view the version of ourselves we want our “public”
to consume—and in memoir. Memoir is no longer the stuffy reminiscence of rich white men who accomplished great feats of politics or war. It is the genre of the oppressed, the outcast, the other. Memoir has become a genre saturated with trauma, tragedy, and the triumph over these things. The curse of reality-TV is also that we believe what we are seeing is reality when, in fact, a reality program is scripted and edited so that the audience is made to feel a particular something. The outcome is never open to interpretation. We cannot go on our own journey of discovery. We are taken on a journey predetermined by the producers and emphasized by what they can sell to us in the process. Memoir isn’t so entirely different from this method of taken-from-life, but shaped-into-something formula. The hope in memoir, however, is that the discovery is meaningful, not simply another vehicle for making money. Memoir took off in a big way in the mid-1990s amid an economic boom, but the people who were writing memoirs at that time were not the same people who were reaping the rewards of the boom. Many of the people writing memoirs at this time were, for lack of a better description, disenfranchised youth, chronicling lives saddled with abuse, addiction, and trauma. It is not for nothing that many of the memoirs published during these years were called “memoirs of crisis.” And it is not entirely surprising that memoir has received so much bad press when you consider that relatively few people who write memoir have done anything extraordinary, nor do they have any extraordinary talent for introspection. I don’t mean to lump together all memoirs into the category of navel-gazing, but I believe our culture’s increased introversion has impacted our ability to be introspective while driving our obsession with self-promotion and a constant need for attention. Simply, many people who write memoir make the mistake of believing the story itself is important. Readers, too, often seem to fall into this trap. Influenced by reality-based programs, readers believe the entertainment to be paramount, but without a speaker with the ability to transform the experience into wisdom, the event does not become anything. The vital component of a memoir is the voice of discovery, carrying the reader along, allowing a glimpse of what has come from the experience. The writer makes something of the event. After all, as V.S. Pritchett once said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”
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