Friday, August 29, 2014

Links, Miscellany, Musings

Summer is in full swing. After a most lovely two months in Portland, I am some thirteen thousand words into a new project currently titled "La Boheme Portlandia." The work-- potentially its own manuscript, or at least the particularly ambitious anchor to a book of essays-- concerns modern American society and culture and questions of how one is to realize the good life. In particular, I question our education system and its fairness and pedagogy and inequalities, the values and tendencies of our cultural elite in age of rising income inequality, the aggregate influence and role of the wired internet in our lives, and most especially, how the good life for white upper-class bohemians is dependent on gentrification and marginalization of minority communities. Portland is my case study.

As I note early (and complicate, elaborate on, and refute later):

"The good life has been misunderstood as slow growth, small aspiration, feckless meandering, the long slow circular cycle of craft beer and cheap whiskey and ceaselessly refilled bowls or vaporizers, of blurry nights astride fixed gear bikes flashing sleeves of tattoos and admiring them on others for the duration of time it takes to figure out what one should do when one grows up. La Boheme Portlandia is little different than La Boheme Brooklyn, except for the flashing of designer boots and jeans, hand-tailored from distressed fabric, and the stumble home made to finer, better appointed flats as enabled by trust funds and proximity to wealth. La Boheme America in 2014 is less a seeking of truth as it is a flashing of the cultural pastiche of the last three decades, signs and symbols disassociated from referents, the search for meaning replaced with the affirmation of mere presence. Showing up does not have to mean growing up or attempting anything beyond the trivial; one belongs by adopting the cosmetically acceptable enablers of hedonism. Happiness is realized in putting a bird on it, and so being released from any greater responsibilities or ambitions. Just be happy, man. Smoke a bowl, and cue Netflix. The rest will take care of itself."

Portland in the rearview mirror, I'm now fully into wedding season: four weddings in six weeks. A busy time celebrating the happiness of friends!

Over at The Goodmen Project, my essay, "Why I Hate Bullies," has received beautiful treatment.

Over at Triquarterly, my craft essay, "On Retrospection," recently was featured.

UNSAID 7 has just been released, and I am honored to have my nearly ten thousand word story, "In Every Song," included in the issue.

I am also pleased to announce that two excerpts from my memoir of teaching in the Delta have been placed with Waxwing: my essay "Lessons Learned," and an excerpt of the memoir titled "What Remains." Issue 5 of the journal goes live February 15.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hope in What Work We Do

My essay, Hope in What Work We Do, just went live over at The Goodmen Project:



As I stood at the dim bar examining the dance floor, prepared to be bored, I thought I recognized a Philipino girl with her hair pulled back with clips, and then thought the same of a black girl with her hair in tight, braided rows. And then I saw the two tall young black men with them, six-foot two or three or four, with their baggy pants and backward ball-caps, standing tall and confident with their arms crossed, the sort of young men who might get the Richard Sherman treatment at first glance for their swaggering, brazen otherness, for the way they took up space and occupied it with crossed arms. I recognized these young men, too—or at least, was pretty sure I’d taught them.

And then the girl with her hair in rows saw me, and smiled, and pointed me out to the group, and the Philipino girl, whose name I couldn’t quite remember, was skipping up and embracing me, asking me how I was doing and did I remember her from freshman year, and all I could recall was that she’d been raised by her maternal grandmother, who had told her to find a better life or else fail trying, which she’d written about in her identity essay; that, and how she, and all of them in this group, had been in a particularly rowdy class, a class of performers and clowns and outspoken, silly, loud, enthusiastic kids who had been particularly difficult and particularly fun in the late afternoon in spring years ago, at least three years ago, or hell, was it four? And by then the two young men made it over, towering over me, holding out their broad hands, which enveloped mine, and one of them, whose hair was braided and hung about his face, who I remembered had been the second in his family to take my class, an African immigrant family out of North Portland, a kid who’d written about how basketball had saved his life, whose older sister had written about how she feared for her brother, who was always getting in with the wrong crowd, seized my hand and took me by the arm and then the shoulder and said, “You were a great teacher. Thank you.”

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Game of Waiting

For years and years, I've preached process to my literary friends. I've listened to their fears and doubts about the long odds inherent in the pursuit of lyric and literary art, and affirmed them (since I share them). And I've insisted that considering the intersection of art and commerce is the wrong obsession, that all that matters is the work of making meaning which is an end unto itself. I've said, and meant, that the integrity of art lies purely in the purity of pursuit, that what matters is not publications or awards or pay, but in the doing which is its own reward, to have reached and to have honed and to have made as much as beautiful and significant as one can. I have meant what I said. But I find that faith being tested, now, by success I should be happy with: after all these years, I have an agent, and two complete manuscripts, a memoir of teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and a novel-in-stories in the voices of Delta children, many of those stories new (written in the inspired flurry of the last year, the most productive by far of my writing life). I thought I would be happy to arrive, but instead I find myself, in this suddenly dark wet fall, in a state of panic and arrest.

That philosophy of process held up through what is eight years now of submissions to literary magazines and journals and newspapers-- held up through the years of rejection it often takes to place even an excellent story or essay out of slush, held up as fellowships and opportunities and lovers passed me by, as friends left and peers seemed to soar and I struggled on ground. I have a two-sided sheet where I scribbled my record of submissions, one side of which is in the photo below (the second side), an amazing visual record now of what persistence means. Things settled out in that process-- I ascended from slush with regularity, have published between four and eight pieces a year of literary fiction and nonfiction since 2008 in some of the country's finest venues, have won fellowships that formerly passed me by, have hewed to process and kept a stiff upper lip when disappointment ensued. I queried a 125 agents with parts of the two finished manuscripts that were enjambed and called a novel, kept on through two years of rejection until I realized each book had to live as its own expression. I realized that being published in literary magazines matters little, even good publications-- and just as I accepted how little it meant to be in The Sun or Gulf Coast or The Oxford-American or a Norton anthology, an agent came to me saying they'd read me in Creative Nonfiction and wanted to read the manuscript the piece had come from, and I sent it on expecting it to come to nothing and days later a phone call came from New York and suddenly I was revising the memoir, being told to withdraw stories I had out because we were going to take a run at the big magazines that only consider agented fiction, being prepared to go to editors.

Now, I'm waiting for my agent is going to tell me what he thinks of the newest revision of the memoir and strategize about where to send the four unpublished dialect stories, and I am a wreck. I have been psychologically dependent on production, on process, and there was a safety to that state of career-- I just did the work. Now, I have two finished (or near-finished) projects, and nothing to work on and no submissions to make and nothing boiling forth and I feel hollowed and crazy. This morning at the coffee shop, the fellow behind the counter said I seemed jittery. It's worse than that, really-- I feel sick with dread, shaken by the impending stakes, by verdicts with real consequences to come. Exactly how I used to feel before a big wrestling tournament; exactly why I grew to hate competition even as I loved the sport. And right now I feel similarly about writing: I miss the doing, the reaching for meaning, and can't bear to face the failure that may come.

Except. Except that the act of saying how I feel even in an inappropriate venue like a blog, is itself an affirmation and clarification. Friends, cut me some slack if I'm all over the place in the next weeks and months; writer friends, wish me the best as I wish all of you the best. If the submissions sheet must take more ink (I have always intended to retire it when I finally publish a book), so be it. I will persist, write more. I just hope that verdict is swift, so I can get back to the joy of the writing itself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Place to Stand

Earlier this morning, I was intrigued by Solmaz Sharif’s post at the Kenyon Review blog, where she interrogated questions of what made an American poet of the 20th Century ‘great’ and floated the work of Gwendolyn Brooks as being especially important. How often ‘greatness’ in anything, be it art or literature or music, is the province of white men, while 'ethnic' literature and ‘women’s writing’ are consigned to separate shelves, separate anthologies, considered in isolation, relegated to the status of the necessarily minor ‘other’. Sharif noted that question of greatness is not particularly interesting; of more interest is the question of importance, which is to say, who and what we talk about when we allude to a poet being ‘20th century’ and ‘American.’ She draws attention to writers of color who address injustice, and asks whether their subject or art is most significant, questioning how many ‘ethnic’ poets are culled from anthologies as the years progress, even as the past remains, well, white. She notes the danger of erasure.

Brooks herself considers such questions obliquely in two poems, one called "Of Robert Frost," and the other beside it in her Selected Poems, titled "Langston Hughes." Frost she reserves rote and reserved praise for, saying, "He is splendid. With a place to stand." But of Hughes she notes, he "grips his right of twisting free," and is "helmsman, hatchet, headlight."

Greatness? I don't know the metrics by which to measure. But give me Hughes and Brooks for their quality of lyric that exceeds efforts to define it, that sort of music we require most of all. Hughes in “Daybreak in Alabama,” when the speaker says that one day he’s going to be a composer, and write him some music that contains the world whole, the swamp and mist and fields and heavens:


And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers


This poem, though written in dialect, is not only a ‘black literature,’ meant to speak only to the ‘black experience’—the speaker would write the whole damn world, and accept nothing less. So much contemporary poetry (and fiction, and essay, for that matter) is merely gestural, a bank of flat mirrors reflecting dull imitation; the emphasis on ‘writing what you know’ and ‘writing to the pain’ has become obsessive, limitation leading to writing of limited force and limited implications. Hughes’s speaker would make music to encompass the world whole—and he would sing it like he means it.

The poet Carl Swart says the difference between such an art and lesser work is like the distinction between actually praying and reciting catechism. I suppose that is why Frost at his more trite is so objectionable—poetry (and writing in general, lyric or narrative) ought to try to say something of significance, to risk with heart and ambition, not pander the familiar promenade. And when we consider it, we ought not to segregate and relegate by race or subject. We need to fight to ensure there’s equal space for all to stand.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Most Important Six Weeks

So, friends, much has been happening lately.

There's this little lyric elegy, published by the lovely folks at Sunday Salon.

And then there's what's happened over the summer. A lot is going on. I now have an agent. I have nearly finished two books-- the memoir, and a novel-in-stories, both about the Mississippi Delta and the kids there, though from vastly different perspectives and in different modes of variation. And after a break from my life, eight weeks in Portland during which I wrote three long new stories and climbed myself lean and mean and enjoyed the diversity of the city and all its opportunities, I now have six weeks until the start of teaching to revise both books until they are ready for editors. It is exhilarating, and crazy-making-- an entire decade of my writing career hangs in the balance. But I am up to the challenge.

I hope.