Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: On Art and Activism

image_09_05_030_apartheidMy first act of political activism was deciding to divorce my husband. He would sneer and make snide remarks every time he saw me painting and would only support my return to higher education if it was directed toward getting a job that made a ton of money. What was I doing with that guy, you may ask? It’s complicated, as the popular saying goes. Let’s just say that I got out, continued to paint, took up writing poetry when I returned to college and ended up in an MFA poetry program at Columbia University in New York, where my eyes were opened wide to a wider world of progressive politics. Columbia was the first university to divest in the anti-Apartheid movement, after Columbia students took over and held an administration building on campus for over a week. It was thrilling to be a part of this, even if I couldn’t sleep on the cold ground with the much younger undergrads. When I returned to California, I dived into art and activism both, dragging my children to anti-nuclear protest demonstrations, working for awhile as an art therapist in a mental hospital and eventually teaching art and writing in the both the men’s and women’s prisons.

My first day at Corcoran State Prison, walking across the yard by myself, being mad dogged by a hefty inmate pumping iron was scary until I smiled and said hello, and he smiled and said hello back. I kept going back because I loved the work and the inmates were so nice…no, really. They were so appreciative of every little thing I did for them and it was gratifying to see women who had no visits and no money even for commissary

weaving beautiful tote bags out of strips of plastic bread wrappers. I know they weren’t saints, but I got to know them and they trusted me and told me their stories. And eventually, I wrote poems in the voices of inmates, which appeared in at least two of my poetry books, the latest one, ALTAR FOR ESCAPED VOICES, from Tebot Bach, published in 2013.

Then my full time teaching job at the university ended because of budget cut backs, (I was an adjunct with a contract and benefits…a rare species). Why did I lose my job? Again, it was complicated. But I had more time to devote to my passions: art, writing and activism.

In 2009, I accompanied a friend who was making a film, set in the homeless encampments of H St, at that time a huge mass of makeshift dwellings patched together from blue tarps, scraps of wood and odd pieces of junk, by the railroad tracks downtown, with about two to three hundred homeless residents. I was so taken with the visual tableau that I came back with my camera and ended up with a photography show at city hall. It was fascinating how they put together living spaces with scavenged metal, wood, tarps, and all manner of discarded detritus. But mostly, I was entranced with how they personalized their spaces and even decorated for the holidays. One of these photos was published in SUPERSTITION REVIEW, a photo of a Christmas tree with raggedy tinsel, reflected in the oily bilge of a dirt parking lot adjacent to the encampments.

Some years later, a friend bought a  big house, with a half of an acre and opened up a transitional living shelter for the homeless. Immediately, I jumped on board and it’s been quite a ride. We have 12 to 13 clients at any given time, and we’ve learned to fly this plane in the air. But, also, I’ve met remarkable people, those who are truly at the bottom of the pile, both physically and metaphorically. And they’ve shared their stories and many of their voices have crept into my poems. I’m both amazed and appalled at how hated this segment of society is. Even some of my so called liberal friends will go on a rant about them digging through their trash or stealing copper wire from their church. I get this. But you can’t paint any group of people with one brush, and they aren’t all drug addicts or mentally ill. The homeless I know are incredible, smart, kind people who just needed some extra help. What I don’t get is how hard nosed people have gotten about helping those who are truly down and out. Yes, some have mental health issues and some have drug and alcohol issues, but let he or she whose family is without issues, cast the first stone. The housing first model works (with basic social services components wrapped in)…I’ve seen it work. And it’s amazing to see people move from dumpster diving to diving into homework or job applications. One of our residents conquered her addictions, is very close to receiving her drug and alcohol counseling certificate and is now living on her own with a part time job.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve taken these kinds of jobs to get material for poems, photos or paintings. I think that kind of process would be self defeating. It was quite the reverse for me. I took the jobs and got involved in the projects because that’s where my heart was. One of my favorite quotes is from Charlie Parker: “If it’s not in your life, it won’t come out your horn.”

Another hero, Albert Einstein said,  “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” I didn’t ever feel that making artwork was a choice for me and being involved in activist work that is meaningful is also not a choice. And it’s not complicated, it’s what I have to do because it’s who I am.

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.

Guest Blog Post, Renée K. Nicholson; DIY Arts Entrepreneurship

Renée K. NicholsonIn January of this year, I received an email from the professional social media site LinkedIn telling me my profile was in the top 10% of all viewed profiles in 2012. What surprised me most about this email is that I really had no idea how that happened, or what it really meant. As a writer, book critic, dance critic, ballet teacher (retired dancer), literary podcaster, journal founder, former marketing professional, and rheumatoid arthritis advocate—among other things—I felt like my profile was a jumble of stuff. But what a friend explained to me was that my profile told a story. She went on to say that my story, as told by LinkedIn, defied the one-dimensional logic of the resume, and that my on-again off-again participation in a few very focused professional groups on the site continued a narrative that located me in a community.

But what community?

Before we get to that, there are a few things you need to know.

1. First, as I was growing up, my father worked for IBM. He was a top salesperson, and then recruited into the highly selective Executive Education program, established by IBM’s founder, Tom Watson. But while working in Executive Education, a new project was developing in the Entry Systems Division, and my father was one of the first 40 people to join this project. People told him it would be his “career ender.” The project he’d been recruited for was called the Personal Computer.

2. As a young person, I trained to be a ballet dancer. Although my career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of performing in what’s called “the corps de ballet” or a ballet company. A ballet company is like a family, and although in popular depictions, the rivalries are often the point of focus, it’s the community of artists coming together that truly defines the dancing experience. In that way, it’s unlike writing, a solitary art, one that I’d find only after my short dancing career passed.

3. During my married life, I’ve owned, with my husband, two houses, both of which have been improved through fairly extensive DYI home upgrades. The cost savings of doing the work ourselves (and by ourselves, I really have to say that my husband did almost all of it himself), we not only increased the value of our home, but we had complete control (for better or worse) of the process of making our home a better, more beautiful dwelling in the way we wanted it to be.

All three of these things come together, for me, as an artist looking to make my way through the world. The artist’s path is not easy. As Jim Hart, Director of Southern Methodist University’s Arts Entrepreneurship program said at a conference that posted a YouTube video of his speech, most artists find themselves on the over-saturated path where there are a few traditional, commercially-viable opportunities for which there exists a large audience competition for these resources. This rings true—there are only so many books the big New York publishers take a gamble on compared to the number of novel manuscripts; in the dance world, there were only so many people the ballet companies could absorb, and many dancers talented enough to fill those spots. Rejection is high and even the lucky breaks don’t always amount to making a living, Hart reminds us.

So, what to do?

Shaped by my experience, I believe a few very specific things. Like my father, sometimes you have to take risks to earn rewards—to think off the beaten path to success. I also believe that there is value in community, which was forged in the corps de ballet. And finally, I believe that some things can be done without the aid of (so-called) experts and professionals, in the DYI fashion, giving us an alternative to the modern consumer culture.

The professor and retired entrepreneur Greg Watson defined entrepreneurship as “the creation of value often through the identification of unmet needs or through the identification of opportunities for change.” What, more than art, provides value and opportunities for change?

We often consider value in monetary terms. Of course, we all need to cover our expenses for our survival and comfort. But can artistic value be measured in other ways? I think yes, and I think one of the best ways is through community building.

In the summer of 2012, I started a fledging project with another writer—a book podcast. We chose a book, read it independently, and then recorded our discussion and posted it on the Internet and through iTunes. SummerBooks has grown from a handful of listeners to thousands of hits in less than a year. I don’t even think it has hit its full potential yet. Marketing has been low-budget—via social media, like that LinkedIn profile I started with, and Twitter. The feedback I’ve received on the podcast, however, suggests that writers and readers were, in fact, looking for community. Presses and authors approach us about reading their newest books; listeners often contact us when they hear us discuss a book and then decide to purchase and read it, too. More than anything, SummerBooks has challenged me to be in dialogue with the community I care about: writers and readers.

At its essence, SummerBooks is fueled by a passion for books. It’s two women in West Virginia who are either brave or stupid enough to share in that conversation.

Late last year, a former student from teaching English 101 in my graduate school days approached me about starting a literary journal. A recent graduate in poetry from the prestigious MFA at Columbia, this student had spent a few years after the program figuring out what was next. Of course, I agreed to help, not only because I have a terrible time saying “no” to such projects, but because I saw it as an opportunity. Souvenir emerged as a result, a journal not only serving writers, but opening up to other art forms and informed criticism. Nascent as still is, the response by both contributors and readers far exceeds, already, our hopes for the publication.

It would be fair to criticize these efforts as not being financially viable; at this point, both ventures create value in ways other than monetary. But the frugal DYI approach makes them both cost effective and alternative to consumer culture. And there are some more established examples to point to: Brad Listi’s Other People podcast or the online literary community The Rumpus, which includes two different book clubs. Of course, others too. I’m not privy to what these endeavors do commercially, but their ability to coalesce communities of writers can be easily seen and joined. By engaging in these, one can be “in company” with other literary artists.

With the developments presented by e-books, the changing perception of self-publishing, the rise of hybrid publishing and ability for more people to engage in small press publishing, the opportunities for arts entrepreneurship for writers has never, perhaps, been greater. The work is hard, but it’s there to be done. And I’m not sure we’ve even begun to see and understand all the ways new technologies will manifest opportunities for literary artists. It’s all scary, as change can be, but also exciting.

My interests, above all others, is to invest in the building of community. I’ve figured out the ways in which to earn (eek out?) my living, and so my passion resides in finding ways to connect. Because if social media has taught us anything, it’s that we yearn for connection. Bringing people together through the arts seems to me one of the best ways for that yearning towards connection to become the catalyst for community.

There’s always risk in entrepreneurial ventures. But also reward. When IBM’s entrepreneurial project, the PC, became such a success, the same people who had once chided my father about taking that risk later asked if he was hiring. How do we know if the risk is worth taking? I don’t know that I have any better advice on that than anyone else, but I think it has to do with hard work and faith and just a gut feeling. Learning, perhaps, to trust our instincts. That DYI credo of the success or failure squarely situated in ourselves, rather than listening to all those who gate-keep, who say, “no.”

If it weren’t for that top 10% LinkedIn email, I might never have thought about DYI Arts Entrepreneurship. But, thankfully I have. And perhaps some of you reading this will get the germ of your own idea, expanding and growing the ideas behind the proliferation of literary or other art. Because if the world is full of art and artistic community, it’s also full of possibility.

Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 2012 Contest

The 2012 Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art Writing Contest is open for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry submissions. Contributors are welcome to submit one fiction or non-fiction piece or five poems per $14 entry fee. Judges include Anne Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), Dinaw Mengestu (How to Read the Air), and Eileen Myles (Inferno: a poet’s novel). The deadline for entries is February 1, 2012.

See the Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art website for more information.