For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.
How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.
This summer I spent a week in the company of Marge Piercy and twelve other talented and dedicated poets. At the end of our week Marge asked us to commit openly, in writing, to our writing, to keep it first on our to-do list. My promise to myself has two parts: get back to submitting work regularly and reduce outside commitments. This week I have done a lousy job of keeping that promise. Too many outside events have drawn me away from my desk.
And what have I done? Chastised and berated myself for my slothfulness and wailed like a three year old about what a failure I am as a writer. Well, wake up, child. This past week I’ve attended a day-long poetry festival, taken part in a public reading to celebrate National Translation Month, volunteered as writing coach at our local mental health service, taught two classes on creative writing, attended a talk on cliche at a local library and today I’m off to the first seasonal meeting of CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers’ Assoc.) Oh, and spent a valuable hour yesterday with one of my writing partners. This, my dear self, is not sloth.
It’s distraction from the individual aspects of writing. So right here in front of everyone, I forgive myself for losing focus, dropping the reins, wallowing in remorse, all those things that would, if I let them, keep me mired in regret. I’ve just put three little stickies on the edge of my monitor to remind me that here, at the desk is my next destination.
Read for Equality
One of my favorite aspects of writing is reading. I have often said that I don’t remember not being able to read. Books are, of course, my ongoing education, my best friends, my toughest critics. I’ve written here about my intention to broaden my scope to include more books written by people of color and that’s still high on my list. But I confess that this week has been a frenzy of reading that marginally touches marginalized writers.
Here’s what I’ve read this week: Daniel Martin, a novel by John Fowles (this a repeat for me and more delicious now than when I first read it years ago), Pushcart XL: Best of the Small Presses (marvelous selections that include writers of all shades and persuasions), Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control–and Live to Tell the Tale (wise advice writing the long narrative) and George Seferis’s Collected Poems: Revised Edition.
It helped, sort of, that I’ve had a head cold and was not fit company the past few days for other living persons. Even my dog is tired of hearing me blow my nose. But the books don’t care; they don’t judge my wastebasket full of dirty tissues or my meandering appetite that has called repeatedly for chicken soup and non-dairy ice cream. As a writer I’ve uncovered a treasure trove of examples and instructions. As a reader I’ve been entertained, challenged, delighted and at times frustrated that I don’t write like any of these powerful wordsmiths. But I might learn to do just that if I keep reading.
Remember to Read for Equality.
This week I read Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel, Ceremony. The book gives us a deeper understanding of Native American culture and the racism within and around the reservation. The protagonist, a young man of mixed blood (Mexican & Laguna), and his cousin both serve in WWII and are on the Bataan Death March. The cousin, Rocky, dies on the march, but Tayo returns to the U.S. with severe PTSD. His “friends” on the reservation repeatedly draw him into shiftless, violent alcoholism and belittle him for his parentage, although he has been raised in the Native culture.
This is a rich, heroic story, and I regret not having read it years ago. (It was first published in 1977.) But the cover blurbs unbalance me. Those on the back are generous and they endorse her talent. You might just make out N. Scott Momaday’s words: “. . . her talent is real and remarkable.” The Washington Post Book World calls the novel “exceptional.” Consider though the wording on the front: “Without question Leslie Silko is the most accomplished Native American writer of her generation . . .” The New York Times Book Review. Not a bad comment, but I want help understanding the labeling of her talent as that of a Native American. Silko is an outstanding writer no matter what her background. It’s as if she’s been boxed, separated from other successful novelists. I hope the reviewer meant it as a compliment, but the limitation bothers me. Is this a subtle form of racism?
It’s past time to think about inequality in the publishing business, the people of color under-represented in libraries, bookstores, on school reading lists, and in kiddie lit. The problem lies partly with white editors who “can’t identify” with characters of color. And then there’s the Market Effect. Publishers too often assume that only people of color will buy books written by blacks, Asians, or other non-white authors. Well, even those white readers who would read these books cannot buy what is not available.
And more than ever the U.S. public needs the Other Voice in order to humanize rather than demonize the rich cultures that lie outside the pale. Yes, the pale. Too many white readers, agents, editors and the like have walled themselves inside a white-literature ghetto. Like Plato’s cave people they see a shadowy reflection of a reality more diverse and textured than they can imagine.
One meaningful action all readers can take in these divisive times is to READ FOR EQUALITY. Learn about the black lives that we say matter. And if the bookstore or library has a sickly white pallor, say something. If the reading list a child brings home from school is mainstream white, suggest colorful additions or substitutions. Browse reviews of books from outside the knee-jerk best seller lists.
I won’t take to the streets and I have too few black neighbors to make face time a positive choice, but I have some control over what I read. And now I have the hot links I’ve posted below to help educate me about those who don’t look like me, who may not live as I do, but who can tell a good story, write a good poem or memoir and show me what matters in black lives.
Jonathan Waldman has written a prize-winning book called Rust: The Longest War. Waldman is a journalist and true to his profession he did plenty of first hand research about the problems of corrosion. Odd, you say, who cares, you say? We all should care. Waldman found that we almost lost the Statue of Liberty to corrosion. He went to “can school” in Boulder to learn about the joys and sorrows of canned products. He went to Alaska to hang out with the workers who inspect and maintain the oil pipeline. And when he spoke to writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Waldman dissed our beloved Friday 500 acronym BICHOK–“butt in chair, hands on keyboard.”
His advice was to get off your duff and go look, really look, at the world beyond your desk. It’s a version of the mythic hero’s journey: the hero leaves home alone, risks his or her own safety, and brings back treasure for the community. I think Waldman’s right, but so is BICHOK. As a writer, I need to do both, balance the investigation of the world with the time spent making marks on screen or paper.
So, today I’ll spend hours and hours in the company of other poets, digging with my pen for treasures to bring back to fellow writers. And I’ll try hard to keep a wide focus. Who are these people I’ll be with? What are their quirks and talents? What space will we occupy? What might I witness en route? We don’t have to go to can school or to Alaska or to NYC to find treasure. It’s everywhere if we take the time to look. So, BICHOK later, treasure hunt now.
Some books earn my respect, even affection. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one. The subtitle tells a lot: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” I am not a gardener nor a farmer, so anything that explains plant life feels fresh to me. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation . . .” so I was persuaded to trust her knowledge. What I was not prepared for was the stunning prose that kept me reading. Somewhere I’ve heard that writing well requires “faith, hope, and clarity.” She gives us all three in abundance.
In addition to her style and content, Kimmerer is a story teller. She takes on the role in a personal and personable way. Her first-person accounts of her work as mother and scientist, indigenous person and skilled teacher wooed me. I felt that I was standing in the rain with her, noticing the various sizes of rain drops as they fell from the leaves and mosses. I was with her and her daughters as they went out in the dark to escort salamanders across blacktop to keep them from becoming roadkill. I listened like a child to native stories of Skywoman and Windigo. Her voice is clear and sweet as maple sap, but never syrupy, never wheedling. Rather she shows the ways that natural science and writing and daily life are braided together like the wild sweetgrass she uses for ceremonies of thanksgiving.
Here, then, is a lesson on writing about the potentially esoteric skills and knowledge of a scientist and the emotional life of a single mother and the history of people dismissed and under appreciated despite their centuries old knowledge of the world. Read it and learn.