Speaking as an editor, for a change

June 5, 2008

When I started blogging several years ago, I promised myself I’d always tell the whole truth about anything I brought up, or I wouldn’t say anything.

Tonight I received a poetry submission by a very circuitous route. This delayed the reading and responding by a good long time– seven months. Now I had heard from this particular writer maybe a month ago via email and replied that I didn’t know where the submission was, but she had sent it to another editor, who was supposed to have responded. That person resigned recently, and I asked for the leftover work and papers etc. to be shipped to me. This writer was in that large shipment; her submission had never been opened till today.

I was really moved by two of the poems; in fact, I got that rare sensation of something like the world having a new dimension open up underneath of itself. Lyric depth. When a poem has somewhere to go to and it succeeds, that is exciting in a really deep way. The other one was even better though. I felt chills reading it. That is something that makes this whole editing job seem much more worthwhile– when you discover something great from someone you never heard of before.

I don’t want to reveal the name of this poet because I haven’t asked her about how she’d feel about being mentioned in a blog, and it may be that the poems have been taken by someone else already.

When I lived in Colorado for five years, five LONG years, I often looked at the mountains 50+ miles away and was reminded of the age of the earth and the mountains and the brevity of our hours here on earth. This was consoling. Maybe it was the idea that the earth abides (relatively) forever. We poor fools of nature fretting and strutting our seconds on stage, in spite of our transience, matter a great deal somehow, and we know this deep inside. In our own ways, the things we do, the poems we write, the breaths we take, resonate for more than just the instant in the wind that we can feel, here and now. We are a minuscule part of something far greater, and the mountains are somehow an analogue to this idea. Even the mountains are minuscule and passing wonders against the age of the earth. But this makes them even more beautiful to us.


How 21.4 human years = 150 poet years

May 23, 2008

Literary Philadelphia is more beautiful than you could imagine. It’s not like NYC at all, which beats you over the head with its awe-inspiring cultural wealth on every corner. (I almost said “on every coroner,” which could also be true, if you think about it.) Not long ago I was invited to go to a reading of the poets Jane Miller and Catherine Pierce at Drexel University. Harriet Levin had told me about it, and I was eager to go since I trusted her judgment on these things. I had known of Jane Miller and her work since 1985 when she was on the cover of American Poetry Review. I was curious about where a poet like that much younger, daring poet would be at this point in her life and career. The Living Arts Lounge at Drexel U was a very nice carpeted room with good lighting. Henry Israeli, the publisher, was getting sandwiches for the readers when the event was supposed to start. So Harriet started the event, which was attended by the chair of the English Department and the poets Don Riggs and myself and a pretty large number of students.

When Henry got there, he was, indeed, carrying the sandwiches for the featured poets. He looked a little embarrassed about being late, but he did a nice job with the intros. I think everyone there was well aware of how stellar a press Saturnalia was.

I think that they were webcasting the event, also. I hadn’t thought about that until too late—I was sitting up front not very far from the readers, so it was likely that I was in the view of the camera. That meant that I suddenly felt like I had to “act” interested even if I wasn’t because I didn’t want other poets and students god-knows-where-in-the-world to see me zoning out at a poetry reading!

Fortunately, I didn’t have to act interested. They were both more than interesting, and they both read for a reasonable length of time. Both of them read works that resonated well. It was, in fact, moving the way you’d hope a poetry reading would be in an ideal world.

Afterwards, Harriet was wonderful and introduced me to both of the featured poets. They were both sincerely friendly and wanted to talk. Being at work at Muhlenberg College all spring 60 miles away, I hadn’t had many chances to meet with other poets. This was a great way to break that ice. By coincidence, Catherine Pierce was familiar with one of my favorite formative influences in the poetry world, Etheridge Knight.

That reminded me of the first times I’d heard poets reading in Philly.

Also, not so long ago, I went out of my way to see a poetry reading a few blocks away from my house. Jabiya Dragonsun, formerly of Philly, was reading here again. I hadn’t seen him in 23-24 years or so. Jabiya also had been greatly influenced by Etheridge Knight. Lamont Steptoe came and Bob Small was the host of the series. So it was like really being back “home”—in a very deep way, Philadelphia as a poetry community was where I first heard a lot of what poetry is capable of—and incapable of, if you know what I mean. The audience was small, maybe ten—maybe twelve people. There were mostly younger poets there for the open reading.

This was the Poets & Prophets series, which had been running forever—more than two decades, I think. In poet years, that might as well be a hundred and fifty years. I mean, like dogs, poets live approximately seven years during every normal human year.

It really made me remember those early times when Jabiya mentioned Jerome Robinson. I had heard that he had passed away. He also mentioned CarolAnn Robertson in his reading, someone who first helped me get started in the poetry world. CarolAnn had written to me even many years later. It was CarolAnn who had introduced me to Etheridge Knight when I was just twenty or so—in the spring of 1983. Jabiya had a very dramatic performance style.

It took a while for Jabiya to recognize me. Lamont had to remind him who I was.

A lot of poets would like to forget that there was a poet like Etheridge, would like to forget that a poor black convict from a penitentiary could become so famous and influential. It was because of the soul and the blues, those depths that glowed in the undercurrent of the Philly sound, that made his poetry so beautiful.
Without being able to articulate it then, I understood this at some level when I was just a young pup in Po Biz.

What Etheridge brought so powerfully into poetry in Philadelphia and Bethlehem and everywhere else that he went to read was this fulfillment of the promise. He showed in reality an idea that others wished could be true—that someone who was supposed to be crushed, inconsequential and invisible could matter and make great art out of even the most brutal experiences.

I don’t fully understand why or how he cared about me, then. I can’t imagine what he saw in me. I know I was grateful, though, and it was a life-altering experience to hear him read, over and over. I know that when I heard about the passing of Etheridge it was like one kind of world had vanished and another kind of music was entering the world—the deepest root to the blues in American poetry was silenced.

By another coincidence, this spring in Syracuse I read with another poet who had also been influenced by Etheridge Knight. His name was Randall Horton. We did not know each other at all. He was surprised that Etheridge was a big influence on me. Most people would assume that an Asian-American would not be so influenced by someone so different on the outside.

But poetic influences are not about the outsides of people; they are more mysterious and, sometimes, even transcendent than that.

Today, just by chance I bumped into a novelist, Allison Whitenberg. She had her seven-week old infant in a pouch in front of her. The last time I had seen her, she had still been carrying the child inside. I had meant to get in touch with her and vice versa. I finally got her email in my address book, then, just a half block north of Rittenhouse Square. She said her new book is doing well and getting some good reviews. She was happy to bump into me and vice versa, even if it only happens a few times a year and by chance on the street.

Emcee for the Reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC during AWP

May 23, 2008

Being the emcee for a reading at the Cornelia Street Café for the Many Mountains Moving, Inc. authors and editors was thrilling, especially hearing the work of my peers there.

Patrick Lawler, whose book Feeding the Fear of the Earth is one of those rare books capable of changing the way the world looks and feels after you are finished reading it, gave a very charismatic and funny performance. I knew he was really on from the moment he opened his mouth and kidded me, his editor, about the cuts I suggested in his book manuscript. (All the other authors had very nicely complimented me on being this inspiring editor etc.)

I can’t remember Patrick’s exact words, but he said something like, “My book used to be fifty pages longer than it is, and then Jeff made me cut all the best ones! So tonight I’m going to read those poems that aren’t in this book.” What made this so funny was that he did it without a hint of irony. I was laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair. Patrick is usually an amazing reader, but this night he was even better than usual. He was literally glowing with inspiration under the stage lights.

It was an exciting gathering for MMM Press. This was our first and, so far, only group reading. The setting was a very beautiful long room with decorative lighting and not a lot of other lighting around the dining tables in the basement space. The small bar at the opposite end of the room was far enough away that it didn’t interfere with the reading and vice versa.

This was also the first time I heard Susan Settlemyre Williams read—she was added at the almost last minute because we were not sure the book would arrive on time for the AWP book fair. It was wonderful to hear in her own voice the work that has been garnering so much great praise. Anne-Marie Cusac in her part of the reading was luminous and elegant; she has a style of reading that draws you in closer to the subjects of her work, which are very strong in their sensuality and their sensory experiences. This was also the first time that I heard Alison Stone read her work, and she had a very distinctive voice that cut through the atmosphere with its sharp insights, its surprising turns and inflections. All in all the reading revealed to me some of the strands that make MMM, Inc. what it is.

Thaddeus Rutkowski, our new fiction editor, also read in a very inspired and inspiring way. Though I had heard all or nearly all of the pieces before, he was so on top of his comic timing that I was laughing to the point where it hurts. Worse, I couldn’t stop laughing that hard.

I actually did not have a great reading on stage myself; it was okay though. Other worries were really absorbing my energy, so it was very hard to concentrate on the work. But at least a few people really liked it a lot.

The person in charge of the scheduling programs, Angelo Verga, was very kind afterwards. He does not come to everything at the Cafe—it is so busy there. He said that we had done a great job all together. I think that for him that was high praise.

a talk prepared for the 2008 AWP NYC conference on the theme of how to create your own book tour

February 3, 2008


Meeting Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in Philadelphia, years ago

December 25, 2007

One of the most important events in my life was meeting Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in Philadelphia when he came to visit the Shambhala Center, which his father Chogyam Trungpa had created. I did not know what to expect, and I knew only a little about Buddhism then, and I knew nothing about the lineages of Shambhala. I did not understand how important he was as the new leader of the lineage etc. I did have some experiences with meditation and had worked with meditation as part of my own writing though. And I had read some of Chogyam Trungpa’s writings a long time before, and The Myth of Freedom had been one of the most powerful books I’d ever read.

The session with Sakyong Mipham included a Question and Answer period followed by a period of sitting with him. He was more than serene; he radiated warmth and humble compassion. There was something fearless and almost innocent about his presence, but when he spoke, he was too apt and too intelligent to be really innocent. The questions that people asked were quite revealing, but always of themselves. The answers he gave were always direct, clear and simple. I asked a question, too. I wanted to know what the value was of a teacher. (This sounds like a stupid question, now, but it was somehow not obvious to me then.) He answered that it was a good question, and he said that it would help you learn more quickly and easily.

Why wasn’t that obvious to me before? Maybe the same reason it took me so long to get an MFA in poetry—I thought I could figure it all out by myself.

Then he sat and meditated with us in the large room across from the Shambhala Center, which actually was a dance studio.

This is hard to explain because I never felt anything like this before—he was just physically sitting there meditating, but it was as though the room filled with his light, warmth, and powerful, fearless compassion and love for all of us there. It was not merely that I could see how he felt; it was like the feelings inside him were flowing out of him and into us. Nothing in Western science, religion or culture could prepare anyone for this—it was extraordinary. It was a very beautiful and life-altering process. It lasted a long time, but I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to experience it more and understand it. How was this even possible?

I never understood it until I read a passage from Turning the Mind into an Ally, a book that he wrote:

What the Buddha discovered is that we all have bodhichitta, ripe for nourishment. Within the bewildering maelstrom of thoughts and emotions that keep our sense of self solid, each of us already has the seeds of love and compassion. Bodhichitta is the radiant heart that is constantly and naturally, without self-consciousness, generating love and compassion for the benefit of others. It’s a stream of love and compassion that connects us all, without fixation or attachment. It has a tender sadness to it, like a wound that remains eternally exposed. It’s our true nature.

This passage reminded me of a few things. It reminded me that he was able to do this radiating of the heart of love and compassion, and that it did, in fact, have this tender and sad quality. It also reminded me of the one time in my life when I had an out-of-body experience. Then I remembered having a similar, powerful experience of this other way of being that was very much like the bodhichitta state of being that Sakyong Mipham describes. Trying to describe that accurately and well was one of the hardest things I ever tried to do in writing. The story was called “Out-of-body travel at thirteen.” I have read this story once in front of a real audience, and I have heard that the audience really “got it.” I also heard from a few readers that they really loved the story. That makes me think that maybe the message got through. It also reminded me of a phrase from William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which was “the still sad music of humanity.”

Looking back over many years, I am grateful to Sakyong Mipham for the fearless way that he practices and writes.

the best things about being invited to The Mercury Cafe in Denver

August 23, 2007

    Some of the best things about being invited to read at the Mercury Café in Denver on 08/17/2007 as one of the finalists for the Colorado Book Award for poetry were seeing my old friends Naomi Horii and Jim Uba, Bob King, and the new staff of Many Mountains Moving, which is both a literary journal of diverse contemporaries and a small poetry press (Barbara Sorensen, Malinda Miller, & Erik Nilsen) were all there. Another gift of the journey was visiting the Shambhala Center in Boulder. The invitation to the Mercury was the “gift” that made all the others possible.

(I left Colorado at the end of June and now live in Philadelphia, but I realized when I flew back to Denver that I still feel more like I live in Colorado than where I am actually living. The great pressure of things to take care of all in a rush may have pushed out of my mind the realization that I was really leaving the place which, for better and worse, was my home for almost five years.)

During this very brief visit (around 42 hours in the West) I was staying at the house of Naomi & Jim and had lunch with Bob in Boulder the day of the reading. It was wonderful to see my friends without the constraints of the very tight schedule of work that was always around me when I worked at University of Northern Colorado. Naomi and Jim are among the most enlightened and generously giving people I have ever met. Bob is one of the nicest and most talented of all the poets I have ever met. If a great man has the heart of a child, Bob is one of those who seems to have reversed the aging process by growing “greater” and greater as time has passed.

Since I was by myself after having lunch with Bob at the Himalaya Restaurant and catching up on things, I felt free to stop in at the Shambhala Center in Boulder, which is a very large and beautifully maintained building not far from the Pearl Street Mall. I knew that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche came and went there, but this had always been just on the edge of my consciousness. I had just meant to see what it was like inside, and it had the feel of a place where people were around, but I didn’t see anyone at all on the first floor at the reception area, the gift shop, or in any of the rooms on the first floor. I wandered up to the second floor and heard someone in an office talking quietly on the phone. Finally, I found the great hall where meditation took place, and it was much larger and more elaborate than I’d imagined it could be. It was just the kind of place where you could imagine a great spiritual teacher being.

I saw some shoes on the floor and realized someone was in there quietly meditating, and then I decided I should take this opportunity also. It took a while for me to settle on a form of meditation that produced a noticeable change—it was the gayatri mantra. I felt great tingling and warmth with every breath, and a lot of energy moving up through me and out through my mouth. I could easily imagine Sakyong there leading the meditation right there, and this was inspiring because he has done so much work to transform himself and to make himself what he is now. I thought at first I’d only be there for a little while, but it turned into an hour that was very powerful as a cathartic, in a sense. I decided to forgive a lot of people in Colorado for things that they did that they knew were wrong and destructive. Then many of the worries I’d been carrying felt much lighter suddenly, including some from a bad dream that same early morning.

I ran a few errands on the Pearl St. Mall, and then returned to Naomi’s, and then we went to the Mercury. There was a good turnout, and the staff was very nice. The room for the reading was almost a square shape and large enough to hold maybe twenty small café tables, all of which were full of people. There were many-colored strings of lights draped all over from the ceiling. I was the second to last to read in a long program. Just before I started to read, I tried to remember the incident that inspired the poem, “identity papers.” I drew upon the spontaneously rising energy from the day’s meditation during the reading, and it helped a lot so that I felt very connected to the audience all the way through. I could sense that they were hanging on the comic pauses, waiting for the actions to unfold. I also have gotten to know this poem so well that I don’t really need to look at it all the time anymore, so I looked around during the reading and sometimes saw the faces of the people in the first rows of tables. I could tell that they were feeling the impact of the work. One of the young women at a table near the front to my right seemed especially taken with the work, and even much later after I was done I noticed that she was still looking at me almost as though I were still on the stage. The applause afterward was very warm and enthused.

After it was all over, i.e. after the last reader was done, a lot of people complimented me on the reading of the work, and several asked some questions. One friend there, a friend who had heard this probably more than anyone else in the last five years, said she was very proud of me. That was nice to hear.

There are some things that nothing can take away. There are moments when you really touch people with your art, and something profound happens.

Then, later, of course, other sorts of things made me feel very terrible for a night and a day, but I remembered some thing that Mingyur Rinpoche had said about meditation, i.e. that things we think of as “bad” are often great supports for meditation if used the right way, and that this practice would remove the power of the “bad” things, the hurtful messages that we hear from people over and over, those injuring words that become part of the script of our lives when we believe them.

B-b-b-back in the UNCO, the post-tour bring down/debriefing

May 9, 2007

i am very very sleep deprived– just flew back from upstate NY. after 3 hrs sleep in a very dilapidated smelly Days Inn near Rochester. it was the kind of hotel room that exuded all the smells of everything else that everyone else had previously “exuded,” if you know what i mean. consequently, i woke up before the alarm. i swear it was the smells. then at ROC they said my flight was late, and i had to take a different airline later!

i am sitting right now in UNC (University of Northern Colorado, aka UNCO) here with my grad students in an optional creative writing final where they have to write a poem. it sounds weird, but about half the time i get the best thing they write all term this way. maybe it’s the pressure. maybe it’s the fact nobody else reads it. maybe it’s the autohypnotic suggestions i give them, telling them they can write the greatest thing they ever wrote if they just really push through to what they really know vs. what they think they know and what they are supposed to know. maybe it’s because i say you can’t fake anything in creative writing! maybe it’s the exercises that i hand out. maybe it’s the fact that half the time it raises their grade.

the best part of the little tour of upstate NY was seeing my friends there; the food was a big plus though ; ) patrick lawler at SUNY ESF took me to a middle eastern place that was just $%^#$^$% amazing. and dinner at patrick’s house with his wife janet was also wonderful.

the last reading itself went very well at the Syracuse Y, and i say the “itself” because the turnout was minuscule. on the other hand, the 4 teenagers in back (3 guys, 1 girl) actually tuned in, and 3 of them afterward wanted to talk to me and thank me for the show etc. one guy, jon, even bought a book and said he liked the poem “sex ed blues.” i count it as a “moral victory” when you can get a teenager to tune into your poetry and really want to hear more. another guy, collin, said he’d definitely be back when i read in feb. 2008. so they were a really great audience after all, and they seemed to be young poets & writers, i think. aside from the 4 teens, there was 1 guy who just moved into the Y and sort of stumbled into the reading by mistake, and my two friends there, patrick & linda. plus you could add the event organizer and her friend and the musician who HAD to be there, and then suddenly we’re into double digits. after it was over, the guy who came in by mistake also thanked me and shook my hand very sincerely for the identity papers reading.

as an aside, i have to say that patrick and linda had never heard me read before, and it was very important to me that they see and hear how the work would go over. so that also made it worth all the effort etc., and they were very moved & impressed. coming from them, that was a huge compliment because you know they have incredibly high standards.

the audience did laugh at the right spots, so i believe i must have been really on. for it is true that nothing is harder to perform than a joke. tragic lines, by contrast, are way too easy to deliver. you’d think they were a natural or something…

uhh, yeah.

Reading at River’s End, Oswego, NY

May 6, 2007

It was thanks to Ira Sukrungruang that I was able to get this reading; he suggested the place to me, and I wrote the Bookstore owner, Bill, and sent links to my work to Mark Mazzoli, the organizer of poetry events, and he really dug it. And they did great pre-event publicity, I think, with nice displays and posters etc.

So the reading in Oswego, NY, at River’s End Bookstore was something I was looking forward to, but I honestly had no idea what to expect. I also wasn’t feeling so great today although I’d had a nice workshop in Rochester with a couple of very talented women poets, one of whom had just finished her MFA and worked with Tim Liu, in fact. I’d been hoping to see one of my best old friends in Rochester, but it just didn’t work out. And there were a bunch of other nonliterary things I was worried about, and these were oppressive, to say the least.

But the drive up from Rochester was gorgeous— grass so luminously green with the late afternoon sun pouring through the mostly clear sky was so beautiful that, for me, it was painfully beautiful to see. The hills were lush, warm, rich with greenery at all levels— really thick grasses, trees coming out—limbs that really extended unlike the stunted trees of the high plains in north Colorado, where trees clench like fists trying desperately to cling to any drop of moisture, where roses in the summer sometimes look like they have been burnt with a torch they are so black, ashen, brittle—exactly like ashes.

When I saw the many thick rivers and many, many fat lakes, I was thrilled. Rivers in north Colorado are so shallow and shriveled they would not even be called creeks in upstate NY. Then when I saw the Great Lake in the distance I practically died—I can’t explain how seeing a big body of water could be so meaningful—you’d have to come from a high desert plain to feel this way.

I was also driving a rental car that I didn’t want—I’d asked for an economy car that would get 35 mpg but they gave them away before I got there, so I was driving a Pontiac Grand Prix, which was very luxurious and very overpowered. The stereo was great though. So I was feeling okay when I pulled into Oswego, which is right on Lake Ontario, and the bookstore really WAS close to the end of the river.

So after locating the bookstore and checking in and getting some food (which was just a café, but the food was incredibly fresh and wonderful). It made me feel great to see a few acquaintances from the poetry world show up. There was a brief open reading with some very good younger poets, including one guy who just had something picked up by Mississippi Review. And I was pretty well psyched by the time I was on, and it went very well. The audience was small (maybe 15 or so) but very warm and very with it. They laughed at all the right spots; I felt very much at home with them right away, and vice versa, apparently. Just one short funny poem from the first book and then highlights from identity papers. Read for just over half hour, took questions, which were very thoughtful, intelligent questions. Afterwards, lots of warm handshakes, enthused thanks, many more genuinely interested questions, and a much better number of book sales than I’d ever expected.

The really fun part, afterward, was hanging around for a little while with Ira Sukrungruang and his very nice wife Katie, and their protege/genius-giant-fellowship winner, Derrick. He also was very nice and funny. Apparently, there was 12′ of snow, which meant that Derrick had shoveled so much snow off rooftops that he didn’t need a ladder to get down anymore—he just stepped off the roofs onto the snowpiles next to the houses. This explained the new barn that I’d seen on the drive up that looked like a giant foot had stomped it flat on one side—it must have been the heavy snow and ice….

the essential things about style in art, from antonio salemme

May 2, 2007

i was talking to my student justin after class tonight (5/1/07), and showed him this statement (bottom) by the great painter/sculptor antonio salemme, and it is also posted online here:


 no single page of writing has ever had such a powerful and enduring impact on my ability to think critically about art, any art.

i first read this in 1984 when i was 21. i also met antonio once while he was alive; he was a contemporary of Picasso, and he was very famous for some time. He won the Prix de Rome in the 1930s. He did a life-size nude state of Paul Robeson that was on display in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia– imagine a nude African American statue in the most ritzy neighborhood of Philadelphia! I also saw his works myself in his studio and at the house of a friend, and i have never seen, before or since, any artist that i thought was even close to his genius. the wonder to me is that he isn’t as famous as a Van Gogh.

 i wrote about my experiences with his work as a painter in my first blog, and you can see that he inspired directly one poem of mine, if you go to:


then click the link “Regarding a poem inspired by the great painter Antonio Salemme”



by Antonio Salemme/Master Artist (1892-1995)

Style is most important, whether it be a book, a piece of music, a painting, or a piece of sculpture. But style is recognized only in retrospect. If one has style in mind while one is painting, one becomes stylistic. One produces a style after the Gothic, or Renaissance, or African. The style becomes superficial and becomes a manner, and we call that stylistic. My style comes out of my whole life. The style is the result of the state of mind of the artist, the subject matter one is handling, the state of one’s health, and the clarity of one’s mind: all that goes into the work. After it’s done, the style can be recognized. Whatever comes out is a spontaneous and mysterious thing. Style cannot be defined intellectually. It can be seen only in retrospect.

For example, the Gothic style came out of the condition of France and Germany in the 13th and 14th century. The 12th century was Romanesque: after the Romanesque came the Gothic. The Romanesque was a result of the Roman Empire, the Greek art and all of that. Then the Gothic came because the people began to express themselves more directly. It came out of The climate, the stones they had to work with, and their religious approach… their interpretation of Christianity. That whole thing produced what we call the Gothic style, and the word ‘gothic’ means ‘barbarian’, uncivilized’. It was original expression, getting away from the Greek and the Roman. But it all came about in retrospect. The people who built the Gothic cathedrals built them as well as they could under the condition and the state of mind they were in, and out came what we call the Gothic style.

So when someone does a painting, the same process takes place. Everything one is comes out in that painting. If one’s able to be spontaneous, then there is spontaneity in the style and there is vigor in the brush strokes. If one is not able to be spontaneous, because one is still immature and one is uncertain, and one’s technique is not complete, then style doesn’t come through, because one is still struggling with technique. If one has mastered the technique and lived, and is still vigorous, and paints with pleasure, then out comes what we call style. Style is never an intellectual and willful effort. It is like grace in the spiritual life. We try, we pray, we sit, we meditate. By the grace of God in a mysterious way we become enlightened. You don’t become enlightened by mere effort. You don’t achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment comes after great discipline and effort, but we don’t achieve. It is the same with style in Art.

writers in the public eye

April 28, 2007

Recently I posted some links where you may find writings by Anne-Marie Cusac, author of Silkie (poetry from MMM Press, 2007).


As I looked through this info about her works, especially in investigative journalism (free on the web), I was reminded again of how valuable it is for literary writers to exist in many worlds. Anne-Marie Cusac won the George Polk Award for an article in The Progressive on “Stunning Technology,” exposing life-threatening dangers of security devices used in American prisons and exported for use by some repressive foreign regimes. It’s very beautiful writing, and it’s incredibly compelling information, even moreso now than it was then, thanks to the proliferation of torture and torture technologies.

While I was reading this on The Progressive website (in the online archives), I saw Kazim Ali’s news story, 04/26/07, under the heading: “THIS JUST IN.” Then there was Kazim’s story about being seen as a potential terrorist just because he has dark skin.

Meena Alexander, who recently visited U. Northern Colorado, was talking about the differences between history and memory and poetry with some of my students. I can’t remember the exact question, but her answer was something like, “We have poetry so that we do not die of history.” I think everyone understood that she meant that while historians are not interested in the way human experience feels, poets are able to save that feeling of the human essence.

That seemed like a beautiful idea at that moment.

Someone (a past MMM contrbutor, I think) posted a link on this listserv a while ago that led to an article by Judith Butler, a great scholar. She had studied the way 19th c. literary magazines used to coexist with political-cultural-social magazines. This meant that literary writers were always between the covers of magazines that contained far more concerns than just literary concerns, and this gave writers a sense of a public voice.

Apparently, our present day literary magazines and our more public sphere oriented magazines have split apart so much that relatively few literary writers feel a need to read, let alone write for, say, The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic or The Nation, Rolling Stone, etc. Meanwhile, the vast majority of our literary sphere magazines have pretty much lost all of their ability and even the desire to influence the public sphere.

Meena Alexander herself is an exception in that she does feel a need to connect the inner literary life and the outer public world, especially in her book Raw Silk, I think. The poetry she is writing does different things than history, but it includes many histories.

I think Anne-Marie Cusac, likewise, feels a great need to connect the interiors of the literary self to the public spheres, and these worlds in her work are married in a very unusual and engrossing way.

Why does it matter for some literary writers to seriously connect to the public sphere? Because they can stand up for truths that are universally obvious and mostly ignored—like Dickens standing up for children forced into labor. People used to pay great attention to great writers and looked to them to say something true that politicians would be too wary of saying.

How many American writers today have so much influence that they could, by dramatizing a social injustice system of, say, the routine torture of “detainees,” cause widespread social reform from the grassroots up? Could a novelist today do what Dickens did?

When Kurt Vonnegut died very recently, I suddenly realized just how gigantic he had been as a writer in both his more personal, whimsical style and his serious, satirical and anti-war themes. I’d re-read Slaughterhouse-Five many times, and I understood that he knew the times when a Dickens could arouse widespread public outrage and cause vast societal change were over. One of the deeply sane writers on the planet, he was still compelled to write about Dresden all the while knowing his novel would not dismantle any B-52s. He stood up for truths that were universally obvious and mostly ignored. I didn’t feel fully how much I’d looked up to him all of my life until he was gone.

In a more engaged, interconnected world, writers and readers would not feel that they have to turn off or surrender all political, social and cultural consciousness when reading or writing great literature. In a more idealist, detached view of the art world, being away from the political, social, cultural etc. is exactly what art is for.

In his last book, Kurt Vonnegut quoted a friend who said that neither kind of art is superior to the other, i.e. that in which the artist is inspired by the world and that in which the artist is inspired primarily by previous art.

I think a real balance is the best thing, and knowing what that means for the long haul could also be a good thing as we try to find sustainable ways of working as writers in the public eye.

Links for Anne-Marie Cusac can be found at:

The faculty page of Anne-Marie Cusac

Mean Days, 2001, from Tia Chucha Press

Tia Chucha Press

The Progressive Magazine
{For the work of Anne-Marie Cusac as an investigative reporter and magazine writer, type her name into the search space.}

The Amnesty International response to the articles, which led to UN Committee Against Torture action:

A Progressive article that might especially interest literary readers:
An interview with Harold Pinter:

Other articles online:
On alternatives to prison, published on the Mother Jones web site:
For more info about this Mother Jones series, which included articles by Sasha Abramsky, Nell Bernstein, Anne-Marie Cusac, Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., and Governor Gary Johnson:

Utne Review interview with Robert Pinsky:

Journalism: The George Polk Award:

Project Censored:

Madison CitiARTS: