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.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


It didn’t happen often, white as Oregon is, until the summer I taught a class up I-5 in the attempt to get to the city and away from my life. I was on the heels of another bad breakup where it turned out what I’d had was a one-sided devotion and everybody but me clear about that and when the Department chair offered the class, apologizing for the hassle of travel, I signed on eagerly. Found a sublet in a couple’s house out M.L.K. Boulevard in North Portland at the edge of Alberta, a neighborhood that was gentrifying by the day, the old brick houses and empty shops on the main drag getting paint and false-fronts, becoming kitschy shops and swanky bars where hipsters congregated in tight-jeaned packs, the Terrell Brandon barber shop and the Beauty supply and the corner market dark at night even as in daylight they still filled with patrons who eyed the encroachment with loathing and disgust. Each morning I woke early and walked out into the neighborhood, away from commerce toward the parks and projects. One-story brick houses and white ranchos with wide porches and yellowing lawns and chain-link fences and music from inside dim rooms that was only a throb of base, and the black people who lived there out and about in the new summer light, old folks on easy chairs on porches and swings and rockers, young men on corners pounding fists and leaning to poles and playing ball on the occasional hoop in a cul-de-sac or corner lot, women calling to one another across streets, families walking hand in hand with young children, mothers calling out to little ones lagging behind, Get up here, baby! Come on now. Got to keep you safe.

I’d walk block after block, taking in the sights, feet crunching the occasional gravel and staying mostly to the sidewalk, walking the edges of Rosa Parks and Peninsula and Farrington park with the shade of their great old trees and the children running and playing in the grass, turning back from the whoosh and thrum of the freeway as I neared, going down only as far as the overlook over the traintracks and the great green fairway beyond. Drinking it in, thirsty for the familiar cadence of voices, for the sound of children playing: crowing, cajoling, chortling, howling with delight, talking big, talking back. Feeling for a moment the years retreat; feeling for a moment I’d gone back a decade, was again on the streets of Promise. And sometimes, when I’d walked long enough and sun was at an even height throwing short, sharp shadows and I had forgotten myself adequately, I’d suddenly think I saw them in a crowd waiting at a crosswalk, or in a group outside an arcade or convenience store: a girl’s head held high and proud, a boy clowning with wind-milling arms, the shadow of a child’s corn-rowed head and mischief in a flash of eyes. I’d stop and stare, blinking my eyes, trying to be sure. Thinking somehow it was my kids here and now, and there was still time. I could still find them.

Monday, July 22, 2013


An older man, white hair disheveled, sits in the corner of the coffeeshop I write in each afternoon. He is diligently doing something—what, I don’t know, perhaps writing his memoirs, perusing websites of some collectible or hobby. His attention is intent, his neck craning as if to make out on the screen some detail he might miss but for a squint, and as he keeps at his pursuit, he sings to himself quietly, not words, but the melody of some tune only he can hear. His voice is hoarse and gravely, off-key, and the notes that are audible are too random to give away his song. I suppose I might be annoyed, if the man didn’t have such a kind face, the smile lines of his face worn deep, or if I didn’t assume a kind of decency of him, as if no man who finds such comfort in music as to sing it aloud in public could have in him any harm. Instead, I am reminded of my grandfather in his last years, whose broken voice still was a pleasure to hear even when it had lost its pitch and clarity, who sang overloud once his hearing was gone, audacious to the end. He was a hard and uncompromising man, but there was a gentleness in how he loved to sing folk songs of protest and celebration at family gatherings, vintage Americana, this land and you are my sunshine and this little light of mine. Of this man now, I only wish I knew his song, and the nature of his seeking. Yet to ask would be to ruin the very mystery I am most taken by; I learned long ago that some gifts are best let be.

As a rule, my grandfather argued everything he disagreed with, and would not apologize for the vehemence and intensity with which he expressed his opinion. He would take a stand even in a losing battle; he would fight until all was won and lost. What he could not stand was faint-hearted accommodation, the acceptance of imperfection, the betrayal of giving. Argument was a way to face the suffering he saw all about him and persist nonetheless. As a communist union organizer he’d been untiring, even as the F.B.I. ran him out of work and out of New York State, harried him and his family across the country until he rested finally in California, in Berkeley, the leftest Coast. He held forth until he was made city planner, pushed issues that begged disagreement and banged podiums until everyone acquiesced.
I can still see him at eighty, unsteady on his feet, hovering at the counter of a country diner with pale, knobby arms outstretched, instructing our waitress on the particulars of a chocolate soda that was nowhere on the menu. His white beard bristled from his face like a cat’s puffed tail. “If! This! Is! Your! Idea! Of! Service!” he exclaimed, slamming his palm to the counter with each word, “I’ll have nothing on your so-called menu!”
He knew he couldn’t have a soda with his diabetes anyway. But a world that couldn’t offer even the meanest comforts—that was no world at all. This was him mellowed, after the stroke.
My childhood was defined by the echoes of my grandfather’s presence—my father grew up in fear and awe of the Abe, and my father’s own strictness and discipline and idealism and his occasional white-knuckled rage were response and imitation. I can remember my father’s dilated pupils when I talked back, how his face went tight, and remember him striking me so hard on the bottom I felt it through the top of my head. My brother doesn’t recall being spanked because my father became so ashamed at his violence that he stopped entirely by the time my brother was a toddler. The punishment he substituted was forcing us to sit in proper ‘seizah’, back straight and feet tucked underneath, in the Japanese style used in the martial art of Aikido that my father trained and taught, for twenty and thirty minutes at a time, however long it took until he was convinced we had fully and deeply repented. I was stubborn when I felt I was right, and sometimes would sit seizah in my room until I lost feeling in my feet, unapologetic even as the needles of pain spread to my calves and knees, but sometimes I simply refused to admit I was wrong. We were supposed to learn respect and self-control from this discipline, but what I gained instead was a high endurance for pain and the conviction that suffering was better than compromise. My brother and I have tried to find others of our generation raised as strictly, and we cannot; we were raised fairly and treated well, but we also cultivated the willpower of a different age. We were raised to restrain the passion that burned in our grandfather, to stoke it and bear it, to keep it lit. To hew to what we believe just, and to seek better.
Of course, my grandfather could be a hard man. My father’s earliest memory is of seeing Abe’s shadow loom in the doorway—and of breaking into terrified tears, sure he had done something wrong. My grandfather did not salute small accomplishments, especially those which offended his political convictions. So it was that his oldest son, who became a businessman, remained a failure in Abe’s eyes even as my uncle became a millionaire and served on Reagan’s board of education. And so it was that my father, who became a doctor, was hopelessly bourgeouise, a traitor to true causes. When my father sent an invitation to my grandfather for his medical school graduation, it wasn’t that Abe refused to attend—he refused to acknowledge the accomplishment at all.
In his presence, nobody defied Abe that I ever saw; everyone and everything gave way, including and most especially God. When I was a boy, he would bring his five children and their families together for Seder, spread the folding tables into a banquet hall in his living room. Then he would sermonize against the existence of the Almighty for the benefit of my aunt and two uncles who had fled godlessness and become born again Christians. Standing at the head of the table by the unlit candelabra, bending from the waist toward his oldest son who was an elder at a Fundamentalist Christian church, he pounded the table as he spoke, encouraged them to turn the other cheek as well:
“Passover is the day we must recognize that if there is a God, and he did indeed choose these unsophisticated, nomadic Hebrews for his purpose, loving them more than all other human beings on the planet, then God’s love is a love of suffering. He led them from slavery only to offer them a Prophet they would deny, blessing them with three thousand years of bloody persecution. He offered them the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea so that my uncles and aunts who stayed in Poland could be starved in Hitler’s concentration camps, so that your second cousins who were only children, innocent young children, could be dragged to the gas chambers praying for His mercy.”
God had no leg to stand on when he was finished with Him. Then, after half an hour of holding forth, he would sense the absence of opposition and take up the other side, light the candles with all the holy prayers, elohenu-alech-shalom, reclaiming the sacred with the sure cadence of the cantor he’d been as a boy. And so it was that he taught me that what is assailable by logic is only resurrected by grace.

Of course, my grandfather could be wrong. For his last birthday party, my aunts and uncles gathered at his house for his birthday and gathered to sing the working man’s folk songs of their youth. My father loved to sing, though his voice was a quavery, unmelodious warble, and he sang eagerly, squawking and false-noting. My grandfather, who had gone mostly deaf, sat watching us all, and then he put hand to my father’s shoulder and shouted over the music, “Terry, you sing so well now!”
My father nearly choked with surprise and pride, and then beaming, he sang louder still. He repeated my grandfather’s praise a dozen times in the next months, wondering aloud if his voice had improved, if perhaps in middle age he’d been gifted with a new vocal instrument, and I never told him my grandfather had clearly lost his sense of hearing. How could I sully the only compliment his father ever gave him?
When my grandfather was near death, my father came to Mill Valley and spent his last days with him in the room they'd set up for hospice. Acutely aware of how much pain someone in my grandfather's difficult respiratory condition could suffer, he sat administering morphine at every visible sign of discomfort, dosing him well beyond levels that anyone not a physician could have been comfortable with-- after a lifetime of living in fear of his father, Abe had finally passed into the realm of my father's control. Through each night he sat with his hand on his father’s arm, eyeing the clock to count the minutes since he’d hit the morphine button, listening to his father’s ragged breathing for any irregularity that might indicate pain. My father went three sleepless nights tending his father’s suffering with devotion, tendering his love openly, silently, finally beyond reproach.

My grandfather was kinder to me—a better teacher of grandsons than sons. Once, when I was ten and my grandfather was visiting, he took my brother and I to the neighborhood field to play baseball, though there was only time for a few swings before dusk. It was the gray heart of winter and already felt like night, but still we went. My grandfather was said to have been a mean second baseman, scrappy and tireless, but he pitched to me now, my brother fielding on the edge of the soggy outfield. My hands were numb and my timing off, and I chopped two grounders, popped short to left. My grandfather peered at me when he held the ball again, dried it on the bottom of his shirt. “Make this one count,” he said. “It’s the last.”
I knocked the bat against my tennis shoes, squeezed the cold metal tighter and fought the shiver in my knees, willing my hands warm.
“Here it comes,” my grandfather said. He brought the ball to his glove, went still, reared and threw. I swung clean from the heels, felt the connection in my palms. The crack echoed across the empty field as the ball rose above my brother’s head. We stood and watched it soar. My grandfather nodded in admiration, lifted his hand to trace the ball’s arc. “This is a beautiful thing.”
We searched for the ball in the deepening dark, but found no trace. Finally my grandfather called us home. “It will be a mystery,” he said. “Unless you find it tomorrow.”
I knew better even then. I never looked.