Guest Post, Terese Svoboda: In Dreams Begin Responsibility

I hover in a helicopter over a beach where my two grown sons race to catch the spy-worthy ladder I’m dangling. Once they climb up (how do those spies do it, hand-over-hand, with a fierce wind at the rungs?), my husband seals the cockpit from the poison that’s building up below, I gun the motor to leave–but to where? We hover, using up valuable fuel. Out to sea where smoke billows over the Atlantic? Up or down the nuclear-blasted north or south?

My dream brain knows we can’t flee West. After 9/11, my father bought a truck that fit seven, certain he could drive to New York and quickly return us to the family homestead in Nebraska, sure bombs would reflect in his taillights all the way. Never mind that the SAC airbase in Omaha was where Bush hid until he was forced to make an appearance, that the cornfields of home lie a mere 300 miles away from the missiles – he would rescue us. Now my brother has commandeered my father’s truck, along with the deed to his house—and dumped him into assisted living. Home no longer exists.

I dream my homelessness, I hover and know that the helicopter fuel will run out, joining the realities of travel with the impeccable dream-logic of anxiety. I’ve had experience: the post-nuclear world of the fifties was filled with such dreams. My father – like most – never explained why he didn’t invest in a bomb shelter like the neighbors, was heedless of the rising inflection of the inquiring helpless child, busy ducking and covering at school. Well, we only ducked and covered once, were expected to remember forever (we did) not to look at the fireball. Oh, Orpheus! If we were attacked by night, were we supposed to run back the twelve blocks to school to hide under our desks? I imagined running in the dark, the school gone, I dreamt it.

Imagination is crucial to terror, and night causes the imagination to consolidate our rational daytime fears with our nighttime, the terror billowing out of control, forest-fire-wild, all light and shifting dark. Dawn sweeps the pre-verbal visions away, and holds terror at bay, no longer baying. The sun shines and the plants grow and those post-war children uncurl from their balls that they instinctively imagine protect them, never mind the desks. “In dreams begin responsibilities” according to Delmore Schwartz, whose book from the Fifties and Sixties chronicled disappointment with the American dream, reminding readers that they had to labor hard not to be pulled under by its false economic promise, its faux egalitarianism.

Nothing bad happened on American soil for two hundred and twenty-five years except 9/11, nothing compared to the rest of the world. Our complacency makes violence elsewhere hard to imagine, we have only the little sparks of fear that light up our brains after any one of the thousands of mass shootings in the last five years, nearly all of them committed by Americans. But such complacency is also the result of partial blindness and deliberate amnesia. We’ve had at-home bombings throughout our history, anarchists planted 44 bombs that brought on the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare 100 years ago, George Metesky set off dozens of bombs throughout NYC between 1940 to 1957 (he also slit open seats in movie theaters to hide explosive devices), Ted Kaczynski planted 16 bombs nationwide, fatally injuring three as recently as 1995. Our worst insurrection was also home-made: the Civil War killing 630,000 citizens, but mention should also be made of the 1921 bombing by Oklahomans of black Wall Street in Tulsa that left 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead. Are terrorists terrorists if they’re your fellow Americans, part of the family, as it were?

While I was teaching for the Summer Literary Seminars in Lamu, Kenya, my husband went on a trip up the coast to interview a man who had been imprisoned for two years by the Mossad. Suspected of working for Al-Qaeda because his sister married one of the most important operatives on the continent, he pled innocence. “He was just my sister’s boyfriend,” he said. “It’s true, at the wedding his family didn’t come but they were so far away. He played soccer with everybody else. Even my sister didn’t know.”

A terrorist can be in bed with you, dreaming, night after night.

My brother threatened to bring a gun to a meeting about the family farm. He believed (believes) in the right to bear arms wherever he wants. Does that make him a bully or a freedom fighter? It’s hard for me to understand how someone in my own family could redefine democracy so radically. Taking the benign concept of the family and delivering a gunman is a little like turning a plane into a weapon.  Of course the surrealists believed that whatever can be imagined becomes real. The most potent threat is the threat: the imagining of terror. The current administration is adept at promulgating imagined terror, posturing with North Korea, actually dropping bombs on Syria, political moves that create enormous stress, the opposite of what a government is supposed to provide.

Writers have a responsibility to use their imagination during times of stress. We need to imagine our survival and spread word of that imaginative act to others. I’ve always argued that novice writers have seen enough media violence to imagine any variation themselves, but when they need to imbue those scenes with emotion, they have to go to method-acting, and remember when their brother chased them around with a baseball bat, when their father’s hand was raised to hit them, or when the family dog turned, and magnify that response to fit the scene. Thank god, we survived it.

Writers also need to read and translate from countries that have lived through drone attacks and American terror to understand what they have gone through, to imagine whether that cost is worth our feelings of security. The proposed wall along our border also raises this question. What is the illusion of security worth? Fiction writers traffic in illusion, which is not alt-facts but seeks to establish the truth through accurate portrayal of emotion. Readers understand that. The domestic novel of an unhappy marriage can be a distraction, a method for relieving oneself of terror, but the story about a totalitarian brother making one’s father suffer is perhaps more apt.  The bluster of bullies is possible because they have never lost or never had the ability to imagine losing, they feel assured of their win because they can’t imagine otherwise. To imagine winning, we need to write out our fears with an urgency that makes them impossible to ignore, to make them real enough to act on. We can’t depend on twittering birds and daylight to trigger our survival instincts.

Sleeping at night has become a problem for me. Dreaming is always the goal, reorganizing those brain bits so they work faster, unconscious enlightenment, rest. Waking from the dream, having imagined the worst, panting in the dark, I recognize that even my personal psychic safety has been withdrawn. I can’t go back to sleep anymore than I can go back home. Home is imagined: I’m awake and I have to make home again and again. Ask any refugee.

Guest Post, Terese Svoboda: On Matters of Anger

screaming-1436580Angry, that’s what a critic has declared my When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New Poems. Rather than worry that under gender scrutiny, “anger” is the equivalent of “shrill,” I decided to investigate anger in my influences and to discover whether the term, whether accurate or not, should be avoided at all costs. Although C.K. Williams’s poems addressed war, poverty and climate change, he escaped the anger label entirely. His obituary likened him to Walt Whitman, “politically engaged and passionate” and “Throughout, the sense of moral urgency remained, but without the declamatory tone.” The headline for Adrienne Rich’s obituary ran: “Adrienne Rich, the Poet Beyond Anger.” She is deemed “one of the great poets of rage,” and all there is of anger is the mention that it’s the Old Norse term for “anguish.” Craig Morgan Teicher’s headline for an NPR review of Derek Walcott’s work is “60 Years Of Poems Mix Anger, Ambivalence And Authority,” but the quote in the piece uses “rage” instead of “anger:”

Ablaze with rage, I thought
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
And still the coal of my compassion fought:
That Albion too, was once
A colony like ours, “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Walcott, “Ruins in a Great House”

Last month Karen Finley, the artist who brought down the NEA two decades ago, wrote: “Speaking out with passion is considered inappropriate; you can still see that 25 years later in the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton… You have a right to be angry. We need to have a place in our society where we can be expressing discomfort and conflict.”

The number one aesthetic rationale for avoiding anger is that it dates the work. Whatever you’re unhappy about will change and need a footnote in the Norton Anthology. Number two is that it will always alienate some of its audience and thereby make the work less universal, less classic, less worthy of attention. But Shelley’s “England in 1819,” a poem written two hundred years ago about inequity, is one that has endured. Consider its opening lines: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;/Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring.” I presume the poem has never been a favorite of monarchs, nor even of oligarchies, but for the 99% it’s still a Yes. Anger is one valid response to truth. “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry” is text-on-the-screen from “The Big Short,” the new movie about the 2008 housing bubble, a very angry film.  As Paul Celan wrote: “Not-to-want-to-become-aware-of is the liar’s main business….”

I posit that making readers uncomfortable with anger is just as valid as causing the reader to become aroused with love poems. When Lola Ridge (1874-1941) was asked by the arch-conservative English poet Alice Hunt Bartlett what topics she felt were appropriate to poetry, she wrote: “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not… I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” You can imagine Bartlett phrasing the question around the issue of Ridge’s social conscience, most visible in her first book about Jewish immigrants, The Ghetto and Other Poems, a book that didn’t bemoan the Jew’s situation, nor condemn them like Eliot and Pound, but celebrated their place in a new country. Here is Ridge’s imagist poem about the vast number of unemployed who struggled during a downturn at the beginning of the 20th century:


I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

With anger you only have to flex the muscle, not kayo the reader, allowing her to judge whether she is going to join you in your anger—the way you would with regard to any emotion expressed in a poem. That flexing is difficult, an art. When Czesaw Milosz published “Sarajevo,” a poem that wasn’t his best, he told his translator Robert Hass, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed rather than silent.” The world is full of uncalled-for beauty and senseless tragedy and perfidy, and poets must try to express all of it. The Brooklyn Rail recently wrote: “Terese Svoboda is one of few contemporary American writers who possesses a global consciousness.”  I don’t want to remain silent. Is that a problem for you?

Guest Blog Post, Terese Svoboda: Footnotes for Fiction

Terese Svoboda I’ve been teaching a class at Columbia which Gary Scheytgart calls Fiction for Dummies but is more accurately a fiction class for poets and creative nonfiction writers who want to steal from the genre. One of these students emailed me with her first story, exclaiming how hard fiction is to write, compared to nonfiction. You have to make everything up!

I have just concluded the opposite. I am writing a biography/memoir about the life of anarchist Modernist Lola Ridge who consorted with the likes of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. You’ve never heard of her, partly because her executor has been promising a biography for the last forty years and is holding the papers, and partly because her work didn’t follow the Eliot and Pound maxims of staying divorced from life and politics.

My publisher suggested a fancy hybrid approach of biography/memoir, not me. Researching and then organizing that research along the lines of creative fiction, that is, with characters, plot, motivation, is a double job to start with. I’m triply challenged when I apply myself to the memoir aspect. Just having lived through events doesn’t give me anything approaching insight. Sure, there’s a nimbus of emotion surrounding the madeleine but where is causality when I need it? I strongly prefer to concoct fiction that slowly reveals itself while I am discovering the details to support it.

My fourth novel Tin God, reissued this April, started from a dream Tin Godabout a conquistador and a “drug situation” maybe my brother was involved in. All I had to do was figure out how to put two completely different stories together. With nonfiction, you have all these footnote-y details lying around everywhere that don’t quite go together. And where are they when you think you’ve got a match? But there is, I admit, big payoff when—voila!—I uncover a piece that illuminates everything, e.g., a letter that says Ridge regretted dropping her son off at an orphanage.

I say: footnotes for fiction! Let’s make those fiction writers cough up their sources, they (and me) who so easily assert that they’re crafting truth out of the dross of imagination. Let’s see the ticket that cop gave you that made your mother so mad you had to write a short story to figure out she was having an affair with him. You know you have it around somewhere.