27 December 2010

Reading in the Gap: High Culture vs. Low Culture, Indie Music and CornNuts

The longer I am in my MFA program, the more I notice a distinction between what my classmates and I are reading and what members of my extended family are reading. While I was finishing Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Zak Smith’s memoir We Did Porn, my relatives finished the third book in the Twilight series and worked through Work Song by Ivan Doig. Admittedly, I was reading for a contemporary memoir class, but these are books similar to what other MFA students would be recommending.

To a lesser degree, I noticed this working at an independent bookstore. We had an Indie Next bestseller wall that featured the top ten fiction and nonfiction books in hardcover or paperback. The books shuffled their order each week, but it often reflected what was selling with the major publishing houses as well. In short, this wall was our bread and butter as a bookstore. “Steig Larson? Let me take you to the bestseller wall.” Many of the people who worked at the bookstore read and enjoyed these books, but they also loved other ones; books that didn’t make anyone’s bestseller list. We hand sold our favorite books to one customer at a time. “Many people are reading Tom Clancy, but let me tell you about the best legal mystery novel written in ten years…”

Is there a gap between what us “literary folk” and the common people are reading? Yes.  A recent article in Slate.com addresses this divide at length. http://www.slate.com/id/2275733/ The headline asks “Which One Will Last?” I don’t think that the divide is so extreme. The world of literature won’t end up as either a Costco table or an experimental genre anthology. Journalism loves the term ‘culture war’ with or without an election happening.

My brother told me a joke this week, “How many indies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answer? “You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s an obscure number.” At times, the world of literature and academia can feel like that.

For Christmas, I got The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David Ulin. Clearly, someone who values books and literature is the intended audience. This essay probably won’t find a home in the home of those who own all of Tom Clancy’s novels in paperback. Ulin is preaching to the choir. I could give this book as a gift to my family and friends, but I wouldn’t expect most of them to read it, let alone have it change their reading habits.

We all know where a well-meaning gift book we have no interest in ends up.

I am a poet, but I don’t just read poetry. The books that kept me reading during my middle school years were epic fantasy novels. The books I read in-between my “important books” are urban fantasy, noir thrillers and X-Men graphic novels. I am reading in the gap between the next bestseller and a discourse on the modality of time in Shakespeare’s plays. I want to go to a poetry reading where there are bowls of CornNuts served with the glasses of cheap red wine.

I don’t know where the future of literature is headed, but I hope it continues to remain diverse and offer something for every reader.

19 December 2010

Guest Blogger: Poet, Artist and Mad Biolgist John Myers


 John Myers is a poet and developmental biologist who lives in Missoula, Montana. His manuscript, Cider Kit, was a finalist in Omnidawn’s 2010 Book Prize. He blogs at http://www.ineffectualeffigy.blogspot.com/

Writing is like collage, for me, and I work in both media. Writing is about recombination and surprise for me, and, because I have a background in science, experiment. What happens if I move this line down here, this bandage of wind into the hat. I think about wolverines when I write, of chased brass and sleet. But my favorite form of creativity is collaboration, whether it be visual art, conversation, or writing. If I were to tell you this poem is governed by three main rules, what would it be? Which operations could someone follow, not knowing this poem, and come to a similar stance with repect to language? I like to think. I like to write.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, went to college in Ohio, at Oberlin, and finally moved west three years ago to attend graduate school at the University of Montana. My job now is as a habilitation aid in a group home for persons with developmental disabilities.

I'm gay and I'm an artist, and what does that mean? I don’t think it’s much different than anyone else I know, because I believe everyone is creative. How do I embrace that I like to build it and what happens after I've built it. The joy is in the making and in the attending for me and this morning in Missoula it's snowed. The trees are covered and my car is a diamond patent pending. My task today is to cobble together a collage or a show. So I look up weird party favors on google images. My process likes to be open to chance and I love new ways of letting chance in. This is one reason why I love to collaborate. I collaborate with poets locally one on one and further away using gchat or googledocs. Maybe this blog post sounds like I work for Apple, how much I mention their products. I find pleasurable anything that allows greater expression. I enjoy solitude and the large spruce outside my window here.

Seemingly so in the air, I didn't start writing until after I graduated from college. I began writing as an experiment and because I like it, I still do. I was worked in a developmental biology lab at Case Western Reserve University and studied poetry with Sarah Gridley, a radically kind and radically intelligent poet who encouraged me to apply to MFA programs.

My poems compass my affections, the way my collages are nothing like my sense of sight. Visual art is something that comes to my like a magnet comes to metal. The materials are there for me and I use them. I hope language thinks of me that way. The atlas, I'm told, is compliments of you, and, I agree, is adorable, not that I'm putting it up on my wall or anything, rest assured. My favorite? More than a hand but less than a fever. An attitude in language is like a weal or cleavage, both of which mean two different things that contradict one another but one is left feeling satisfied and true.

Some of my favorites are Elizabeth Bishop and Cesar Vallejo.

13 December 2010

Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Berlin Wall and Mixed Metaphors


Let me start out by saying that my situation is nothing like the division of Germany after WWII.  I have not been separated from the rest of my city, country or had my freedoms restricted by a totalitarian regime.  But the metaphor of wall may work.

Some of you know that I have spent the past eight years living in the tippy-top of western Washington in the city of Bellingham.  It is hard to get much more northerly without bumping into the Pacific Ocean or Canada.  The year after I graduated from WWU I grew a little antsy.  I let myself dream about living somewhere else.  I also applied to graduate MFA programs, which allowed me to dream a little more concretely.  I took the Edward Abbey approach to choosing my program: "Nothing east of the Mississippi."

So time passed and I heard back from the schools.  The University of Idaho and I began courting and that is where I ended up.  Moscow, Idaho.  Population roughly 24,000 hardy souls.  Incorporated as a city in 1887 and sitting at 2,579 feet above sea level, Moscow is where I have a temporary address.  However, I am not a resident of the state of Idaho.  Now you may be asking yourself, "Why is he telling me all of this?"

Allow me one more digression.  When I moved to Bellingham eight years ago from Missoula, MT,  I never thought I would get over calling Montana's "garden city" my home.  Around year six, I'd been away long enough (most of my friends had moved and things had changed ) that Missoula didn't feel like the place I came from anymore.  But for some reason, Bellingham didn't sit quite right as my home either.

In the four months that I have lived part-time in Idaho, I am starting to remember all the things I loved about Western living that I had forgotten about: friendly people, short lines, little traffic and an abundance of space to breathe in.  Coming back to Bellingham now  feels cramped, busy, noisy and more than a little grubby.  But Idaho isn't my home either.  I catch myself saying of both cities as "I am headed home to..."

So I am a drifter.  I am a city divided.  There is no "center" to my sense of geography.  I don't know where I will be headed to once I finish up my graduate program in Idaho, but I hope it is to a place that sings to me and calls me to call it home.

While in Bellingham, all I did was write about Montana.  Now that I am in Idaho, my writing has become jumbled and confused.  I am investigating dreams, the imagination and popular culture.  The landscape in my work is largely internal.  Perhaps when things settle down, I can start to write about Bellingham and the good and bad things found there.

I have a place to hang my hat.  What I need now is a place that feels like home.  Center.  Connection.

05 December 2010

Why are You Still Wasting Your Time with This?

Second year MFA candidates read from their work at what people at the University of Idaho call a “symposium.” It is a chance for writers to showcase their work and share just what they are up to in their writing lives. After reading, students are asked questions about the pieces. There is also a potluck style meal and drinking.

Last night three students read from their work. Mary Morgan read her nonfiction essay inspired by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” She composed fifty-two notes attempting to define or distinguish was made an essay, well an essay.

In the piece, I observed that she set up a very clear dichotomy between herself as a writer and essayist and the people she interacted with. People in bars, mutual partygoers, clerks in bookstores and even her husband “didn’t get it.” The essay appeared to be an attempt to answer the question they all asked her: well what exactly are you writing?

I asked Morgan about this dichotomy. Whom is the essay intended for? Why is there such a divide in the piece? Is your audience the same people who give you perplexed looks when you say you write creative nonfiction?

As a poet and writer myself, I know that all writers consider their audience. This concern extends beyond “How do I market this?” or “Who is likely to publish this?” The real question is who is going to read this and ultimately, “Will my work last beyond myself?”

Being a writer and explaining what you do can be mildly frustrating on the best of days. There is a sinking feeling in my heart much of the time that the nonwriter will “never really get” what I am up to. Even close to home. My partner isn’t a writer. He doesn’t read much beyond magazines, the newspaper and things from the internet. The statistic that one in four Americans didn’t read a book has come home to roost on the pillow next to me. (I am actually outnumbered in my home because the cat did not read a book last year either.)

Sometimes we fight about reading and writing. He has told me, “Your blogging is like me entering contests on the computer.” He has also said, “Writing is good for you, everyone needs a hobby.” What he fails to see and I often fail to explain in a nonhysterical manner is that my blog has something to do with me being a professional writer and that my hobby is more something far more serious.

I don’t know how to tell my partner that writing is in my hardwiring.

I cannot illustrate my obsession, my NEED to put words on a page and rearrange them to him in a clear fashion. He landscapes, but he does not get angry if he is not able to put a bulb in the ground. He enjoys watching action films, but he won’t feel as though there is a bomb going off in his chest if he doesn’t see a car chase once a week.

What I write is an extension of who I am. What I write and revise is an act, however clumsy, of creation. So I ask you this week, why do you write? Whom are you writing for and how do you explain it to others?

And for you nonwriters, I also saw some quail today in the snow.

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