Archive for April, 2007

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:

kurt vonnegut R.I.P.

April 12, 2007

kurt vonnegut was the first writer that made a great life-long impression on me as a writer and a reader. i was in 7th grade the first time i picked up the paperbacks of Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions. i didn’t know yet that pleasure that great was supposed to be unliterary, or that laughter that gutwrenching could count against the seriousness of the themes, as many would think.

no one has ever made so many people laugh so hard, over and over, at death, and no one ever wrote more directly and more satirically in the same sentence.

later, i read many of the other novels, understanding how it was that he could dismiss his writing with a laugh while at the same time knowing what greatness was from his own experiences as a writer.

i don’t believe for a second that in his life “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt,” but i do believe that he could sometimes see life that way, and so it was worth saving.