Month: April 2015 (Page 1 of 2)

Ms. Independence

2011-09-02_12-26-58_462Oddly enough, since I’ve decided to embrace all things digital, opening my mind to the vast freedoms of the electronic frontier, I’ve become obsessed with making books. Actual physical books.

I am not a handy or a crafty person, I have no typesetting or graphic design skills, and yet I am suddenly consumed by the desire to learn how to do these things. Why now? Am I suddenly discovering a sleeper DIY strain in my personality? What’s next? Growing my own vegetables? Buying a goat? Becoming a vehement advocate for chickens in the city?

Heavens, no! What happened is I was recently made painfully aware of just how dependent I am, as a writer, on other people to turn my words into a visually appealing product that engages an audience —see above missing skills. This past spring, the two employees who ran the media department at my little college were let go. I could crank out copy for all I was worth, and there was nobody to turn that copy into attractive, readable documents, nobody to update information on the web site, design flyers, brochures, etc. On my own, I could type up Word documents in Times New Roman, maybe tinker with the margins. Sexy.

Writers often operate in isolation, and with a sense of relative autonomy —we’ve got lower overhead than any other discipline, a portable craft that requires only paper and a pen. (Or, more realistically, a cheap laptop and access to a printer.) I think the ease of transmitting information has, in some ways, strengthened the illusion that we can go it alone, when in fact we still rely on so many people to make our work accessible to readers. (Three cheers for all of the developers, designers, and contributors at WordPress!)

I’m feeling a little uncomfortable about being so reliant on other people. I think I am going to make some book objects to satisfy my newfound need for independence.

Hmm. Maybe there is a streak of the “seize the means” revolutionary in my DNA after all?

Stay tuned.

 

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Pirates!

2011-09-01_12-04-03_974I was excited to see that one of the featured stories in the September 2011 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle was about the so-called “culture wars” and piracy. Yes! Let’s talk about it! As a magazine dedicated to the concerns of writers working in the academy, The Writer’s Chronicle is poised to investigate the ways that intellectual property, content sharing, and scholarship interact. (Hint: making articles available online would be a great start.) These heady topics might well interact like bleach and ammonia, and create a poisonous gas. But isn’t that dangerous “what if” tension the stuff of compelling stories?

So it was quite disappointing to find that the article, “One Novel’s Sojourn Through Culture Wars and Piracy” was eighty percent personal history, mostly a lengthy rant about one writer’s struggles with the publishing industry (albeit fairly exciting ones), and twenty percent lumpy Wikipedia info drop about changes to American copyright law in the 20th century. The writer, Robert Gover, seems uninterested in the larger implications of his discovery that a novel which had earned him critical acclaim and the deep wrath of conservatives had appeared in pirated form on Amazon.com. He also appears to be unaware of the fact that the term “pirate” is applied by behemoth corporations to anybody who downloads anything for free. Damn! It is hard to type with my hook.

At the close of Mr. Gover’s piece, we learn that he still owns the copyright to his work, but has decided it is too expensive to pursue his claim of infringement. What!? While his early career derring-do is interesting, this is the story worth investigating: what would happen if he took said capital “P” pirate to court?

I do feel badly for Mr. Gover: finding your novel reissued, reformatted (the second version, according to Gover, runs paragraphs together where chapter breaks had previously delineated two different points of view), and offered for sale without your permission is every writer’s nightmare. But our author is too emotionally involved to think or write clearly about his topic, so all his story accomplishes is to capitalize on that fear, without offering any useful information. How many other writers have found their works republished without their permission? How likely is this to happen? What protections do writers have? What protections do they need? How does Mr. Gover’s story illustrate (or fail to illustrate) issues that are pertinent to other artists, writers, and scholars?

These are the questions for which I had hoped to learn some answers. I’m afraid that by not assigning another writer to this story and expanding the discussion beyond printed work, the Writer’s Chronicle failed both the author of the piece and its readers.

Are you unclear about copyright, what it means, and how to protect your work? A good place to start is this handy web site: http://copyright.gov/. There is even an animated “Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright” version, featuring a 70’s soundtrack and a junior detective named Cop E. Wright: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/copyrightmystery/#/copyright/. Ready for more swashbuckling ideas about content sharing and ownership? Check out http://creativecommons.org/: Creative Commons licenses provide simple, standardized alternatives to the “all rights reserved” paradigm of traditional copyright.

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One small sin of omission: my Slam poet past

2011-09-06_13-44-57_700Editing my bio for this blog, I left out a chunk of my writing history that doesn’t fit the image I’ve been cultivating of late: that of a serious person, a literary writer, one working in academia. But it’s true: I was a Slam poet. It was the early nineties, I’d just graduated from college, and I was eager to shake off the intellectual dissecting kit bestowed on me by several years of studying literary theory. After seeing the writer and performer Taylor Mali stand up on a chair at a poetry reading, half the audience wrinkling their noses at his effrontery, I knew I wanted to PERFORM my work, and in a decidedly un-academic setting.

And so I did, for a few years. I read my work in venues up and down the Eastern seaboard, competed as part of the 1995 Maine Slam team (fourth in the country!), and generally enjoyed one of those rare phases when poets and rock musicians occupy the same cultural space. Then I did what “serious” writers do —I left the Slam behind. I got my MFA. I started teaching, and traded my battered leather jacket for a black cashmere turtleneck.

But I knew I’d gone too far when a student of mine asked me if she might show me some YouTube videos of spoken word artists —and then wondered aloud if I might be too conservative to enjoy such radical stuff. Okay, I was wearing high heeled loafers. But come on! Me? I kept a straight face, and said I would try to keep an open mind. We spent the next twenty minutes watching videos of Suheir Hammad, chatting about an event my student and her friends had organized at a local pub.

Through this conversation, I remembered how necessary performance poetry had been to my development as a writer: I’d nearly failed a public speaking course in college, so anxious I could barely choke out a sentence. The Slam taught me how to evaluate an audience’s level of engagement, and how to keep them on the line. Having listened to hundreds of writers from all backgrounds read their work, I can usually spot the ones who came up through the Slam, and determine whether or not they “graduated” — trading the established intonations and gestures of performance poetry for a more personal, individual style. These writers remain alert to their audiences, but place the beauty of their words and the craft of writing ahead of their desire for listener response.

I’ve been pleased to see some of the best performers in the Slam make the crossover into the hallowed halls of “literary” writing: Patricia Smith, whose book Blood Dazzler was a 2008 National Book Award finalist, and Jeffrey McDaniel —whose first title with Manic D press, Alibi School, is still one of my favorite books —recently published his fourth collection, The Endarkenment, with the eminently respectable University of Pittsburgh Press.

Have they left the slam behind? Cut it out of their bios? I found this blurb on the National Book Foundation’s web site: “Out of the maelstrom of the Slam, Patricia Smith conjures a harsh and elegant poetry in Blood Dazzler. Readers suspicious of her performance pedigree will note the formal ingenuity, whether sonnet, tanka, or collage. At the same time, the audience who prefers the live mic will be seized by the power of her voices, including that of Katrina ‘in full tantrum.’”

And this in a Wikipedia entry about Jeffrey: “As McDaniel first began publishing poems, he also got involved with the nascent poetry slam movement, representing Washington D.C. and Venice Beach, California in the National Poetry Slam. McDaniel has not performed in a poetry slam since the late 90’s.”

Did they miss the good old days, of performing in bars instead of bookstores? Did they still feel that tension between performance poetry and “traditional” or academic poetry —between writing for the mic, and writing for the page? Back in the day, Slam poets saw traditional writers as high falutin’ and dusty, clinging to obscure references and a dull sense of literary propriety. Literary writers saw the Slam scene as obnoxious and unschooled, its performers sorely in need of lessons in both etiquette and prosody.

Now, from a distance of more than fifteen years, I can see that the Slam —positioned outside of academia, flaunting a working class, up-from-the-streets, do-it-yourself attitude —anticipated some of the shifts in ideas about literary gatekeeping and the viability of self-publishing we are currently experiencing. At the Slam, writers took ownership of their work, their audiences, and often, the production of said work for the page. Almost everybody came armed with a chapbook they had created themselves, and that was not only okay, it was cool. I find myself wondering again about the distinction between “serious” writers who are vetted by institutions and writers who operate outside of those institutions.

Next time I give a reading, I just might have to stand on a chair.

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Way to go, Coach!

When I was a fledgling writer of 23, I landed my first ever “real” job as assistant to the Arts Editor of the local alternative weekly, Elizabeth Peavey. She not only “got” my voice, but helped me to shape it, without imposing her own syntax or style. If I veered toward snarkiness, she reminded me to have some compassion. If I indulged in sentiment, she offered me her ironic Yankee eye. Having worked with a number of editors since, I now know how rare this is.

When Liz left the paper, she went from being my editor to being my coach: she taught me how to read my work in front of an audience. In a truly uncomfortable first “tryout” she insisted I make eye contact (Oh god!); stand up straight; and stop fidgeting, mumbling, and staring at my printed poems as though trying to decipher a rune —in short, she made me stop undermining my own work.

We traveled together, performed together, stormed the 1995 National Poetry Slam together (the trophy resides on top of her fridge) and over time, she became not only my mentor, but one of my dearest friends. The transitions in our relationship have not been without their awkward moments —anyone who has navigated the transformation from mentor or mentee to friend knows this can be fraught: our mentors are our heroes, more advanced in their craft, wiser, older, etc. Our friends are real people.

We’ve had our ups and downs. I took the “literary” track, going to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA, while Liz took the “commercial” track, working as a freelance writer and contributing editor for Downeast Magazine. I prided myself on my starving artist ideals; she was paying her bills with her words.

As we urged each other on, tried to understand differing priorities, worked to overcome envy —the things girlfriends do—I wrangled with a secret wish: that she could still be my hero, a few steps ahead of me, a few sizes larger than real life. We were struggling in different trenches, but on some childish level, it still dismayed me to see my former mentor reduced to regular size. I wanted her to be my advance guard, to take risks I was afraid to take, to lead the way.

Well, my wish has been granted.

After a particularly difficult couple of years, during which Liz dealt with the loss of her mother, a challenging freelance market, and the disheartening  feeling that she had yet to achieve what she hoped to as an artist, my old friend has taken what I consider to be one of the greatest creative risks, a challenge on every level for a writer and performer: she premiered a one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, September 14 & 15 at the Saint Lawrence Theater in Portland, Maine.

On stage alone for an hour and a half, Liz was director, writer, and lead actor in a piece that took the audience through the large life and gradual decline of her stout-hearted, fashion-obsessed mom. It was a moving, funny, wrenchingly honest piece of work that had the audience laughing —a lot— and then, at the end, fighting tears.  My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother taps into universal issues, issues that an entire generation of baby boomers has faced or is about to, one that all of us must eventually confront —the loss of our parents. To find the humor and pathos in such a painful subject is a huge accomplishment, and I think that her show will resonate with audiences all over the country. I’m already prepared to arm wrestle her sweet husband, John, over who gets to drive the van.

In the meantime, there weren’t enough seats in the house to accommodate the crowds at the premiere, so Liz will be performing two additional shows at the Saint Lawrence: Sunday, October 9, and Monday (Columbus Day), October 10. For more information and tickets, go to: http://www.stlawrencearts.org/

Way to go, coach.

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Go Speed Racer Go!

speed racerIt is early yet, for me to evaluate my own performance as a blogger – I’ve completed 6 posts (including my welcome message; 7 if I count my friend Sarah Devlin’s guest post) – but one thing is already clear: I’m not going fast enough. I am finding that my lengthy process of gathering ideas, mulling them over, and then shaping and reshaping them means I don’t generate a lot of material. Or rather, I write plenty of stuff, but that “stuff” is draft material, not for public consumption. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the chatty, informal, “just get it out there” ethos of writing for the web —as with my fiction, I write a thousand drafts, and then in the final version, I labor a long time over every sentence, and then labor some more to ensure my sentences aren’t…labored.

An unanticipated side effect of this riding a horse alongside the highway approach to writing is that every day I feel sure there is information piling itself into unsortable, unknowable heaps of stuff I should already have written about, thought about, synthesized and posted —all in a witty, conversational tone that indicates I’m not really sweating the relentless onslaught of data. My semi-autistic habit of picking at rhetorical knots until I am thoroughly satisfied that all the kinks have been worked out is proving problematic. I forgot to look at Salon.com today. I meant to write about the way info graphics replace words on the web and relate that to writing for performance. I saw a very interesting short video of a piece of digital writing by Amaranth Borsuk that I want to share. Here it is: http://betweenpageandscreen.com/

And so, I issue myself a challenge: more posting, less editing. Starting now.

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Vive la revolution!

Bactrian-camel-2I recently read two articles that gave me pause, highlighting as they did my chronic dual-mindedness:

First, a piece in the September 19, 2011 New Yorker — Louis Menand (I heart you, Louis Menand) writing about the critic Dwight Macdonald: “The liberal highbrow…was a wonderful mid-twentieth-century type. I met a lot of people like that growing up, people who managed to combine unequivocal support for principles like equal rights and freedom of speech with flagrant cultural elitism.” [Emphasis is mine.]

Menand goes on to suggest that such people “thought of their cultural preferences in exactly the same way that they thought of their political principles: as positions that, if everyone adopted them, would make for a better world.”

Ugh. This made my stomach hurt —I am already fighting the quaintness of being an early nineties “type.” How alarming to find myself identifying with “a wonderful mid-twentieth-century  type”?!

I haven’t had a television since 1990 —when they killed off my favorite character Gary on Thirty Something. I try to avoid much of the ugly, vacant, redundant crap of mainstream American culture, in spite of my undergraduate critical theory training, which urged me to embrace all manner of tripe and elevate it to the status of art. I hold very firm ideas about beauty, and the value that artistic endeavors do (or don’t, in my opinion) have, and honest to goodness, it pains me to read lousy sentences, watch almost anything on television [with the noted exception of some truly excellent HBO series, and, um, True Blood —Eric the Viking Vampire. Yes, I have a type.]

I don’t think my taste is necessarily elitist—I’d rather attend a metal show than go to the opera —but my deeply held convictions about what’s good, bad, and ugly in an aesthetic sense border on the dogmatic. Truly, if everybody agreed with my cultural preferences, the world would be a better place. I realize this kind of thinking is at the root of far more problematic ideas. But I wasn’t clear on exactly why until I read a second article, in the September 2011 issue of W.

This piece caused me to experience an upsurge of democratic sentiment. Writing on “the demise of fashion criticism,” the author, Troy Patterson, asks: “Will the brave new mediaverse produce any pundits of [Hilary] Alexander’s stature?” (Alexander, for 25 years one of the most discerning critical eyes in the fashion industry, is leaving London’s Daily Telegraph to —God love her— take classes in archaeology.) The International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes, another arbiter of taste in the fashion world, observed that “[Alexander’s] retirement is definitely a sign that the great pillars of 20th century fashion are coming down.”

Handwringing about the demise of anything except endangered species and etiquette strikes me as pointless melodrama. But that aspect of the piece only irritated me. What inflamed the liberal principles Menand identified as essential to a certain “mid-twentieth century type” was a quote in Patterson’s article from fashion’s most insufferable weenie,  Michael Kors: “Am I interested to hear what people whom I respect have to say? Absolutely” says Michael Kors. “But when it’s a housewife in Peoria?”

I hadn’t made a clear connection between rejecting people’s taste and rejecting their right to have an opinion. (See note about problematic ideas, above.) Is it possible that Michael Kors will drag elistist ol’ me into the twenty-first century? Because my immediate reaction was this: One of the hazards of revolution (and we are undergoing a revolution here, yes?) is that all the gatekeepers lose their posts and HOUSEWIVES IN PEORIA get to have a say in things. Substitute day laborer, taxi driver, teenage girl —everybody can offer their opinion, and that is, from a political point of view, a goddamn good thing. Plus Michael Kors clothes are so boring, he should shut up.

So, there are two of me. Vive la revolution! But don’t let’s take to the streets in our sweatpants.

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Why rabbits don’t write novels

rabbit_1682758cSo, I’m at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Chicago. I’m here for work – my low-res MFA program has a table, we’re hosting a dinner, etc. Each day I try to attend one session for my own creative inspiration, one for the MFA program, and one that addresses the business of writing. Since I just spent the last two weeks at a residency at Ragdale (my first-ever, and damn, it was awesome!) transforming a draft collection of interconnected short stories into the outline of a novel, I was interested in what other writers might have to say about navigating the transitions between writing novels and short stories.

Happily, there was a panel on that very topic. The panelists were variously funny, enlightening, and helpful, although I must confess I always hope for a deeper discussion of the writing process at this sort of event —with five speakers, everybody seems to have just enough time to introduce their topic and then pass the mic. There was much discussion of the early draft writing process, and how to decide whether what you are working on is a novel or a short story. A writer named Erin McGraw was most incisive, saying (and I paraphrase, as my shorthand isn’t great): “The tale we are telling dictates its scope and length.”

This makes sense. Knowing what the tale is would be the first step. That has taken me several years of labor and nearly a decade of carrying around story fragments from a previous career as a bartender— which, incidentally, generates a lot more material than any job in the academy could hope to offer. Nobody has to behave themselves or be articulate in a barroom.

God, I love bars. Being articulate and well behaved is exhausting.

Anyway.  While Ms. McGraw was reading from her very well prepared and engaging talk, the woman in front of me took the Home & Garden section of the local paper out of her handbag, and began to read it. The woman sitting next to me sent a text on her phone. And it struck me that what my blissful two weeks of doing nothing but writing reminded me of is how to concentrate. I hadn’t realized how fractured my thoughts  were, bouncing from one topic to another on my  chronic to-do list, which includes goals as lofty as publishing a book and as mundane as buying new socks, and not necessarily in that order.

This fracturing of my thoughts, of my concentration, made me able to work in a form which, in some hands, can be artfully associative: interconnected short stories. But instead of going deeper into my character’s lives, I felt I was skating along the surface, and in some way, not doing justice to my material. McGraw described her experience of working on short stories as one of nervous hyper-vigilance. This resonated with me, since nervous hyper vigilance is my natural state. Like a rabbit.

The Home & Garden lady folds up her newspaper and leaves. Texty sitting next to me is either writing one of those nano novels or she is a very popular person. I wonder about the level of quiet I will need to make that outline, and all those disparate parts, into a whole, breathing thing. How I will achieve it in my daily life.

I don’t know. McGraw made a comment about that sometimes terrifying question writers ask each other: “So, what are you working on?” She joked that “I don’t know” felt either totally lame or annoyingly Zen.  Maybe we should start asking each other how we are working instead. In a state of split screen, multi-tasking madness? Or quietly, steadily.

I think there might be a fable on this very subject…

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Try again. Fail again. Fail better:

Sacred & Profane installation, October 3, 2009

This weekend, my partner —Galen Richmond— curated his fourth Sacred & Profane, an annual performance and installation event held in a former U.S. military fortification on Peaks Island, Maine. I’ll be honest: this event has always made me uneasy. The first time I attended, in 2001, coincided with my second-ever panic attack (the first being in Lisbon, Portugal, when I accidentally stepped in the path of a large parade, complete with brass instruments and giant puppets).

Sacred & Profane kicks off each year with a procession (see: parades) and ends at Battery Steele, an enormous gun battery built during the Second World War to protect Casco Bay and the Maine coast. Buried in the swampy middle of the island in a thicket of bittersweet, it has been home to numerous abandoned cars, burnt mattresses, traveling Vegan punks, and—I’m sure—all sorts of late night shenanigans. It is one of the most challenging performance spaces imaginable: no light, no power, lower levels flooded with polluted water, etc.

Abandoned hulk though it may be, however, it is still a military installation. This is a point on which Galen, a lover of non sequiturs and chaotic noise, raised by back-to-the-landers in rural Maine, and I —raised in a military family, and used to formality and order—differ. When he stepped in to curate his first S&P, in 2009, my uneasiness became the impetus for action: I felt I had to make a statement—I asked to make a piece.

Full disclosure: part of my rationale was my feeling that the political significance of the site had been papered over by an annual arts Bacchanal. And part was, of course, my desire to be one of the revelers contributing; I’ve been interested in creating works that cross disciplinary boundaries, and shy about doing so, for years. But the last of it was, I’m loathe to admit, envy. Galen’s role as curator, and his complete absorption in the task, made the tension between my fascination with the site and the reality of my own risk-averse nature unbearable. I decided I would make a piece that deliberately went against the grain of the event.

(Oh, waiting for my ugly emotions and hubris to boomerang and whack me in the nose? Don’t worry, they will!)

As it happened, I had a topic that suited; a topic in which I had a personal investment: the U.S. and British governments forced deportation of the inhabitants of a small island in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, a part of the Chagos Archipelago. My father had been stationed there for a year without my mother and me in the mid-70s, during the period when the island was being turned into a giant airstrip, its naturally deep lagoon made home to destroyers and supply ships. Needless to say, none of this was discussed at the dinner table; I didn’t learn about what happened on Diego Garcia until early 2009, when, in a moment of curiosity, I googled the island’s name.

Here is one version of the story (in my words):

In the late 1960s, the United States government made a secret deal with the British: the Crown agreed to “lease” a small, strategically located island — Diego Garcia, a part of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean — to the U.S. for the purposes of creating a military base. Located within less than a day’s travel from the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Pakistan, and other potential targets, Diego Garcia was selected as an ideal site for supporting U.S. military operations in the Middle East and East Asia.

At the time, the island was populated with nearly 2000 people, the descendants of freed slaves and Indian indentured servants who had worked the coconut plantations in the British Indian Ocean Territory. As part of the sale of Diego Garcia by the English to the United States, it was agreed that the Chagossians, as the islanders are called, would have to go.

Initially, islanders who visited neighboring Mauritius to get provisions or seek necessary medical help were not allowed to return. Then, food supply ships were diverted from the island. British soldiers rounded up the islander’s pet dogs and livestock and killed them en masse. Finally, all of the remaining people on the island were forced onto boats, and taken to a prison on Mauritius. Months later, they were released without provision for housing, work, or food.

Since that time, the Chagossians have lobbied Parliament unsuccessfully for restitution, access to ancestral burial grounds, and permission to return to their home.

And here is another version (also in my words):

In the late 1960s, the United States government made one in a series of strategic, forward-thinking moves that would allow the U.S. military to maintain a strong presence in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean territories. Anticipating social unrest and economic instability in the Middle East, India, and East Asia, the United States government sought a viable base from which to safeguard critical Western interests in the region.

After extended analysis aimed at finding a site with minimal population and favorable environmental conditions, the U.S. settled on the island of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago. A former colony of the British, Diego Garcia was leased to the United States through a confidential diplomatic exchange.

Once the small population of islanders was transferred to neighboring Mauritius, the U.S. set about transforming the largely undeveloped site. Over 2000 “Seabees” — the Navy’s construction battalion — were deployed to construct a facility for arming and supplying aircraft carriers, submarines, and maritime air patrol squadrons.

Diego Garcia has been instrumental in supporting U.S. military efforts in the war on terror, and the continued maintenance of the site is vital to our national security.

My concept was simple: in the first room inside Battery Steele, I would set up a processing station, manned by two sentries, the actors Ted Homer and Kristina Balbo. The dank room, battle-scarred, graffitied walls, and dim light contributed (in my mind) to the kangaroo court sense of an irrational and unjust system of decision making. Each person who entered the processing station would be assigned a “rank” and given a white kerchief designating them to be “military personnel,” or an orange kerchief that indicated they were “islanders.” They would then receive a green card with an explanation of the situation as outlined above, depending on their designation, with this additional warning:

All military personnel must wear white kerchief according to guidelines below. Any personnel exhibiting sloppy or inappropriate attire at any point during operation hours are subject to disciplinary action. OR: All Chagossian Islanders/dependents must wear orange kerchief. Any Islander/dependent found on the installation without proper identifying dress during operation hours is subject to fines and/or incarceration.

And now for the backfire, the bounce back, the ricochet:

I had assumed that the Sacred & Profane audience, provoked by being ordered around by people in uniform, and mystified by what the different kerchiefs signified, would seek out the other side of the story. Yes: I’d imagined that over 500 people entering a pitch dark public space in anticipation of a wild free-for-all were going to READ. Not just read, but engage in a thoughtful discussion about what they’d read.

To make matters worse, the way I’d set it up, there were more green cards with the military version of the story. This was connected to my initial visual image of the project: I envisioned hundreds of people wearing different colored kerchiefs, so many that the orange would be overwhelmed by white. I wanted the “ganging up” of the white kerchiefs to be felt by the people in attendance, to force them to question what was going on.

Instead, it was a big muddy blur. People in homemade party hats cavorted by. A guy with a “pull my finger” electrode thingamajig took photos. Half-naked go-go dancers trotted by in feathers and face paint. Somebody inside the Battery’s main tunnel was skronking on a saxophone, trying to murder all sound.

But the most difficult aspect of the piece’s failure to communicate was my own inability to view the story of Diego Garcia in what I felt was the RIGHT way. As a military brat, I felt torn, as ever, between two understandings:

What happened on Diego Garcia was (and continues to be) a deliberate evil perpetrated by the U.S. and British governments against a people with no voice and no recourse to justice. They will never be allowed to return home, in spite of repeated appeals to Parliament, public outcry, and recently, a documentary and a book about their plight. Their island is no longer a tropical paradise; it is a heavily fortified base, just a five-hour flight from Baghdad.

And yet, from a military, strategic perspective, seizing Diego Garcia was (and continues to be) a brilliant move. My dad, a career naval officer, sacrificed a year in the life of our family to being stationed on DG —the year I entered kindergarten—because he’d received an order from his commanding officer. We see things very differently, my Dad and I, but he is nonetheless my father, and I respect him.

As the Sacred & Profane performance unfolded, I felt literally torn in two — a creature of two worlds: one governed by my sense of humanity, and one governed by my understanding of strategic intelligence. I could find no way to make these two understandings co-exist. The fact that I had made twice as many cards outlining the military version of events made me feel keenly that the “wrongness” of my two-sided understanding was writ large. I felt exposed, a pretender to the liberal sympathies I espouse.

I am unable to find a tidy conclusion to this essay; it is clear that I still have a tremendous amount of work to do with this material. But there are two things that stay with me: the need to take more, and greater, creative risks, and the need to be ever on the alert for just how powerful language is in manipulating our perceptions. The true moment of discovery in creating that piece for the 2009 event was this:

In the my “pro-military” version of what happened in Diego Garcia, the seemingly benign word “transferred” masks a terrible reality outlined in the “pro-islander” version:

Initially, islanders who visited neighboring Mauritius to get provisions or seek necessary medical help were not allowed to return. Then, food supply ships were diverted from the island. British soldiers rounded up the islander’s pet dogs and livestock and killed them en masse. Finally, all of the remaining people on the island were forced onto boats, and taken to a prison on Mauritius. Months later, they were released without provision for housing, work, or food.

The Chagossian people continue to fight for reparations, for a return to their homes, and for their voices to be heard. For a well-researched and passionately political response to their plight, refer to the book Island of Shame, by David Vine, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C.

Read. Discuss.

Thank you to my excellent actor friends Ted Homer and Kristina Balbo, to Allen Baldwin for attempting to film the mayhem, to Allie Munier and Heidi Killion for invaluable help assembling costumes and sets, and to Jon Donnell for the excellent photographs. Your contributions were an unqualified success.

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But None Like You

2011-06-20_16-46-19_7042-e1349225418526Much has been said about writers and their cats: some helpful authors go so far as to recommend that you have at least one if you hope to do any serious work. The presence of a furry companion who is happy to endure all manner of inane chatter, plot summarizing, rhetorical questions, etc., without comment, who supports the essential writerly habits of staring out of windows, sitting still for long periods of time, and napping, is invaluable.

But there are cats, and there are cats. Animals —like people—either get you or they don’t. They are interesting or they aren’t. I’ve had numerous pets in my life, but only one soul mate: Frankie the cat. Named for Frank Sinatra, one of my favorite unapologetically ill-behaved and handsome entertainers, I encountered Frankie at the local humane society when he was a mere kitten. “There he is,” I said, pointing. “That’s my cat. Frankie.” A brown tiger with a white ascot and paws, he was asleep inside a large metal cage with one paw tossed casually over his face.

He was a symbol of the commitment between me and my then boyfriend: we weren’t just co-habitating, we were raising a cat! And we discussed his various attributes with the starry-eyed attitude of new parents. Everything the little fucker did was cute. We even invented a made up vocabulary of terms connoting cuteness for Frankie. As he grew into an adult cat, complete with a dazzlingly long, striped tail, there was just an exasperated “Fra-a-a-n-kie!” in response to all of the naughty shit he did. His greatest hit, by far, was wrestling the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey to the floor, and then hissing furiously from inside the turkey’s carcass. He destroyed every piece of furniture I ever had. He peed in all of the corners of not one, but four different apartments, and when I was newly single and dating (he was about six at the time, roughly 42 in cat years), he put on the most ridiculous territorial display ever seen on meeting my new partner: literally sitting between us on the back of the sofa, and wrapping his long stripey tail around my neck.

For seventeen years, he greeted me in the morning with a meow, joined me for movies on the couch, sat on my yoga mat when I tried to stretch, and was just generally omnipresent, into everything, and there to greet me when I got home from work.

All of that is over now. I have had to say farewell to one of my dearest friends and companions. After he was anesthetized, I briefly considered bolting out of the vet’s office before she could return with her awful cocktail—but I knew I would have been doing it for me, not the sleeping tiger cat on my lap. Still such a dashing old fellow, even in reduced circumstances. I can’t quite believe he isn’t here, a constant presence in my household, taking the edge off the loneliness of being a writer, and reminding me to take a little down time now and then for a bask in the sun.

In honor of his passing, I am breaking my rule about posting photos of my cat. (Okay, I did post this one once. But how could I resist?) Here he is, in better days:

2011-11-03_13-38-38_861-e1349225359914I’ll miss you Frank. I’ll miss you awful.

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Bankrupt on Selling: Literature & the Internet

charlatan-tunnel1If I believed in hell, I would surely be paving a path to the fiery pit with my good intentions. Although it did cross my mind during the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago that hell might be a windowless basement full of other writers. Happily, the 2013 AWP Conference will take place in a convention center, a building designed for the mad throngs that now attend this annual meeting.

My good intentions at the 2012 event were to write about a panel I attended, “Literature and the Internet in 2012.” The event was described thusly: “The literary editors of four leading web magazines—HTMLGiant, the Rumpus, PANK, and the Faster Times—offer a roundtable discussion about how the Internet is changing literature and literary publishing in the 21st century.”

This is sort of a tall order, topic-wise, and the impossibility of doing it justice became immediately clear: I got the impression our presenters had—in response to the enormity of the subject—come to the event with nothing but their quick wits at the ready. Situated in the gilded grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, beneath the glittering weigh of eight chandeliers, four editors and writers: Stephen Elliott of the Rumpus; Blake Butler, of HTML Giant; James Yeh, of The Faster Times; and Roxanne Gay of Pank Magazine, who had lost her voice, sat perched on a plywood dais draped in cloth, sipping water and warily eyeing the room.

The contrast between the environment and the very casual, unstructured nature of the conversation made me think of a Coen Brothers style scenario, in which a gaggle of turn-of-the-last century hucksters have been corralled by mystified townsfolk who want to know, dammit, how does this gadget you sold us work? And didn’t you promise us we’d make some money off it, too?

This obsessive interest in selling —accompanied by the undertone of desperation wrought by upheaval in the publishing industry —meant that deeper issues went largely unaddressed, and the whole debate about how literature is being changed devolved into a conversation about how to use the Web to market oneself. This was unfortunate, since I felt certain that the presenters each had something worthwhile to say—each of them is creating innovative online content. Stephen Elliott, in particular, seemed to have a cogent and broad-ranging vision of how the internet as a medium offered new aesthetic possibilities for writers.

Here are a few of their responses to questions from the moderator, each of which revealed a bit about the editors themselves:

How has the internet changed literature?

Gay: “The internet has decentralized gatekeeping. Nobody cares what you look like, they just want to hear what you have to say.”

Butler: “The thing I like about the internet is the weird little tides of argument and BS, so I’m hands off as an editor. I like that freedom and openness. The comment section — you can choose to look at those or not.”

Elliott: “Design, layout and length [on the web] signify a different form. There are studies tracking eyeballs, the way you read online (your eyes sweep over, then down).”

Why publish in print at all?

Elliott: “It’s not print versus online, that’s like saying jazz versus rock and roll.”

What does the internet do to the commerce of being a writer —is it still possible to make a living?

Elliott: Writing literary books was never a good way to make a living. Among artists there is a free economy, I’ve done a lot of writing for free.

How can writers market themselves?

Elliott: I think you should put the same creativity and integrity into marketing your work as you put into the creation of your work.

Butler: Yeah, if you don’t want to be on Facebook, don’t do it.

And here are some questions I am still hoping to find some answers to:

  • What aesthetic possibilities are available ONLINE that are not available in print?
  • What does the immediacy and demand for new, fresh content DO the writing impulse, the editing process, the thought process that governs the complex, multilayered process of writing?
  • Is the internet better at delivering certain types of content?
  • How do these qualities of writing for the web—community, interlinking, associative properties, compression, a sense of urgency and immediacy—affect content?
  • How do print and digital culture converge and communicate with each other?
  • Does it make sense to replicate content in both print and digital forms?

So, I’ll be at AWP 2013 in Boston for much of the coming week, and I’m hopeful that some of the offerings on digital media will give me some more insight into the ways the internet and digital culture are impacting the creative process. And I will tackle the first person that derails a conversation about art with questions about commerce—we’ll go bankrupt on selling, you know?

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