Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally

 

Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

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:

Debris

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, Jesse Goolsby: Excitable Ones

Jesse GoolsbyCharles Francis Richter, inventor of the Richter scale, was a nudist.  I’m not sure what this has to do with earthquakes, save the thought that if caught in a big rattler I think I’d want pants on.  And shoes.

A friend of mine serving in the US Army in Afghanistan has dodged rocket propelled grenades, AK-47 fire, an ambush that began with a girl asking for candy and ended with her lifting her shawl revealing a bomb laden vest, and yet, he tells me the most scared he’s been is watching the ground open up in front of him near the dry slopes of the Hindu Kush.

Read this stunner: Quakes

My vasectomy took place in a “minor surgery room” in the bowls of the Pentagon, performed by a doctor and intern that, by military and legal rules, cannot be sued, no matter the error.  Half way through the operation the wide-eyed intern, who I agreed could watch the proceedings, pokes something into my groin and says, “Oops.”  The doc quickly hip-checks the young man away.  Trying to calm my now unmistakable displeasure, she says, “Everything is just fine. I’ve done these during earthquakes.”  For some reason, that helped.

My six-year-old daughter’s current chart-topper fear is tornadoes.  Before moving to Florida this summer she asked me if there were tornadoes in Florida. I told her that I didn’t think there were many tornadoes, but maybe an occasional hurricane that we’d need to be prepared for.

“But no tornadoes?” she asked.

“Not like Kansas,” I said.

“Daddy, are hurricanes worse than tornadoes?”

What could I say? (1) It depends (2) If you could see her eyes at that moment, perhaps you’d lie too.

I think of my daughter’s gorgeous spirit, the vast possibilities that await her, the fullness of her singular presence.  It overwhelms me.

When I try to contemplate the loss of over 225,000 people in the 2004 Indonesia tsunami, or even of three people gunned down in Union County, Florida a few weeks ago, I’m rendered helpless.  I can’t fathom the lack.  Numbers don’t help.

From Encyclopedia Americana: “The name Hindu Kush means literally ‘Kills the Hindu’, a reminder of the days when Indian slaves from the Indian subcontinent died in the harsh weather typical of the Afghan mountains while being transported to Central Asia.”

One of my favorite passages (Whitman):

There never was any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection that there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

I think that means, in part, stay humble, excitable ones; or, more pointedly, you’re just not that special.

My Army friend thinks my interpretation is crap.  Plus, he’d correct Walt, would substitute “destructive” for “procreant.”

Once, I ask him if he’s killed anyone with his hands.

“Why does it matter if it was with my hands?” he asks.

“I don’t know.  Proximity, I guess. Something about being close enough to see their eyes. I mean, really feel life leaving.”

A pause. He brings his hand to his mouth.

“One had cataracts.”

I don’t know what to say.

“I’ve wondered how much he could see,” he says. He squeezes his mouth. I can see the veins in his hands. “I’ve wondered if he was blind.”

I found this the other day: The Daily Beast recently used data compiled by NOAA’s National Weather Service severe weather database files, which includes tornado reports from 1950 through the end of 2012, to rank states that have the highest tornado incidence rates.

  1. Oklahoma
  2. Florida
  3. Mississippi
  4. Indiana
  5. Louisiana
  6. Alabama
  7. Kansas

Where are we safe?

Florida: almost no earthquakes.

Somehow, that helps.

Guest Blog Post, Mary Carroll-Hackett: Why Whitman Mattered That Day

Mary Carroll-HackettI was gonna write about making stories in second grade with my spelling words. I was gonna write about how my mama, who grew up abjectly poor and who didn’t go to college herself until she was forty-seven, understood so well that she gave me Walt Whitman when I was nine–A child said What is the grass?-– and the collected William Carlos Williams when I was twelve. I was gonna write about loving Wittgenstein, that space between the name and the thing he explores, that space I think we inhabit as artists. The power of story, poetry as prayer, how teaching reminds me every day of how miraculous the language we use to live in this life–I had written 500 words.

 

Then Boston blew up.

And West, Texas.

I quit watching the news years ago, but I stalked Facebook, texting people I know and love in the Boston area. I heard snippets of the working-class drawls of people on the streets in Texas. And I cried.

One sweet-faced freshman at the small liberal arts college where I teach in Virginia, shifted from foot to foot in my office, saying he had family in Boston, asking if he could keep his phone on vibrate.

Whitman: Song of MyselfOther freshmen–wide-eyed and curious and scared–in my American Lit class the next morning, discussed Whitman’s Song of Myself–”What is removed drops horribly in a pail”–as a manhunt locked my Boston friends in their homes, keeping their children home from school, away from windows and doors.

Shelter in place.

My students asked me Why and I didn’t have an answer. I said, “He’s your age, the one they’re chasing. Can you tell me why?”

They didn’t have an answer either.

What we did have was pain, fear, the shared understanding of how vulnerable we all are. We talked about that vulnerability, and they revealed to me that they, these children who were only six years old when planes hit the Trade Towers, feel that vulnerable, that defenseless, all the time.

One, a girl, generally giggly, who reminds me of a sparrow, bit her bottom lip and, said, “We know how much there is to lose.”

Yes, they do.

They were first-graders, carrying lunchboxes and crayons and Pokemon trading cards, when our military went into Afghanistan They barely remember when we haven’t been at war in the Middle East.

They were in middle school when the economy tanked. They’ve seen their parents lose jobs; they’ve packed up their picture books and soccer gear to move out of their childhood homes as a result of job loss or foreclosure. Some of them have learned what it means to be hungry, to be without heat or healthcare, what it means to make do. And to do without.

I, like lots of other people, have lived or still live in these kinds of truths, but for these kids, this is new.

Many of the kids I teach are from northern Virginia, growing up in the shadow of DC, in those belt-lines of power, in a culture accustomed to not only financial security, but to the security of government work. They are, for the most part, sheltered by their DOD and corporate parents, more so than the kids I taught at a large state school before this. Sending them to our mostly residential university in rural Virginia is, for a lot of them, a continuation of their parents’ desire to protect them.

I’m not judging any of this. It is what it is. But much of the work I do with them, coming from my own poor and rural background, is simply helping them understand, through writing, through literature, that not everyone lives the way they do, in this country, or elsewhere.

students

I teach as a writer. It’s how I live in the world, and I simply don’t know how to be anything else. I work at a teaching institution; everyone teaches General Education classes, and I love teaching those brand-new-just-out-of-high-school freshmen more than I can say.   Even when one of them asks, every semester—

I’m a Bio-PoliSci-Business-Anything-but-English major. What does this class have to do with me?

I tell them, as best I know how, what literature, all art, means to me, and why I think it matters to them.

For me, it is only in literature, in art, that we hear and can intimately know the individual human voice. I tell them that, to my mind, the literature we read belongs much more to them than it does to us, the writers who create it. We, I believe, are reflectors, and in fifty years, the literature created by their peers will reveal their time, their dreams, their fears and values, the hopes they hold close to their hearts. .

Without apology for the tears this discussion always brings, or for what I know many of my own peers will dismiss as sentimental, I tell these young people, that for me the function of all art is to allow us to look across the room at another human being, at each other, and say You are not alone.

We felt alone that day.

As Boston’s police force sought a broken young man their age, and as the death and injury toll rose outside the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, and as the media bombarded the airwaves with conflicting and frightening partial stories, one of my students quietly said, “You know, at first I was kinda pissed at having to read a fifty page poem.” He leaned back, arm thrown over the back of the desk, sprawled in the seat like a young strong animal. Then he smiled. “But, yeah, I really like this Whitman guy.”

I asked, as I do at the beginning of any reading discussion, “So…what struck you? What didn’t you like? What part stayed with you?”

He gave us a page number and we turned to the part he selected, reading it, gratefully, together.

“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband
sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself….”

Meet the Interns: Mike Tomzik, Web Designer

Mike Tomzik is a Creative Writing major.

Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?

Mike Tomzik: I am a Web Designer for Superstition Review. Being that the Review is an online literary publication, I design and form an orderly layout of the professional work featured within the magazine.

SR: How did you hear about Superstition Review and what made you decide to get involved?

MT: I tend to sporadically search for online publications and journals that could possibly feature my work, and as I was going through the Arizona State website I came across Superstition Review. The name was familiar to me and the internship appealed to my interests. I’ve been looking to get involved with a literary publication for some time and the dynamics of the Review seemed like something that would be conducive to my progression as not only a writer and editor, but as a person interested in working in the writing world.

SR: What are you hoping to take away from your Superstition Review experience?

MT: I want to get an inside look at how a magazine operates, and I would like to learn the techniques that will allow me to successfully publish and edit professional work in the future.

SR: Describe one of your favorite literary or artistic works.

MT: In terms of literary fiction, my favorite writer is John Steinbeck. My favorite book by him is East of Eden, which–logically–is my favorite book. I tend to like novels that have a sense of the epic, and East of Eden is an epic look at multiple generations of a family. The themes involving good and evil are themes that I recognize as being an integral part of Steinbeck’s writing and are important factors in my own writing. I think that life is composed of literary characters and Steinbeck really captured wholesome, human people in this novel.

One of my favorite American poems is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. I love the unconventional vision created from his mind and spirit, and I believe that much of what he wrote in his lifetime masterpiece is considered unconventional because it is the naked truth. People are afraid of bare absolutes and Whitman does a good job at exposing these spiritual necessities.

SR: What are you currently reading?

MT: I am currently reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?

MT: I would definitely like to try out editing. In regards to my own personal writing, editing is the hardest part for me. I enjoy the initial composition of a piece but it is very difficult for me to rearrange what I have so carefully composed. I need work on it, and I think that both poetry and fiction editing would strengthen not only my editing abilities but sharpen my writing and reading skills as well.

SR: Do you prefer reading literary magazines online or in print?

MT: I prefer to read everything in print. Reading on the computer is a very different experience. After a while my eyes become out of focus and my world dizzies to the point of paranoia. Books were written for the tangible page. The physical book is an essential part of the art of writing. The cover, the pages, the font, the pictures, the smell, the texture; all these factors give the actual book character and meaning. To open a book is to enter a world, and that book in your hand is the vehicle that transports you there. To see the author’s words on the page is to feel his or her mind thinking. Reading words on the computer is not only a modern practice that exempts the art of book-binding and selling, but is very capable of driving me mad. For me, minimal technology in art is the best. The mind is all we need.

SR: Do you write or create art? What are you currently working on?

MT: I like to think that I write like a feverish young Hemingway with a dedication to the art similar to that of Norman Mailer. I tell people that I have lived before as the great Leo Tolstoy due to our similar vision of human nature and writing style, but in reality I write minimally and sporadically. I am pleased with what I write and have written a few good works catalogued in my own personal repertoire. I am satisfied with one of my short stories, an epic poem I wrote for class, and a short screenplay that I have written. My desk is filled with pages of philosophical ramble, short beginnings to works I once deemed masterpieces, song lyrics, movie ideas, dialogues, and clips of my mind that I was lucky enough to find a pen to record. I figure that I should record as much of my mind as I can while I still have it. I love writing love poetry.

Besides writing, I am a musician. I’ve been blessed with the soul of music and it is up to me what I will do with it and how far I will evolve it. Right now, in the twenty second year of my existence, I figure that it would be foolish not to use the strings that I have been given, and I see music as the medium that most effectively expresses my love and happiness. I’ve noticed that life functions off the former to produce the latter, so this avenue seems to be my true path to enlightenment.

But that is a bold claim that I as a human shouldn’t have the authority to utter, though I still do. This is not to say my writing is not important or that it will not be involved in my professional life. Music is writing and writing is music. Hell, outside is inside and the sky is part of the grass. Everything is everything and it all connects and truthfully, in my moments of true artistic desire and longing to express that which I carry within, I want to completely represent myself by any and all means possible, whether it is with a pen, a guitar, a brush, or a smile.

SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?

MT: I honestly spend my time quite prodigally and extravagantly. I’m sporadic and random. I start many things and finish about half of them. I’m interested in nearly everything. I want to grow exponentially but my tendency to dawdle is detrimental. I read and write and sing and dance and drink and eat and talk and listen and laugh and smoke mostly.

SR: What is your favorite mode of relaxation?

MT: I like to meditate. I climb atop my roof and look out over the dusk. I enjoy swimming and golfing and riding my bicycle. I like to play Frisbee with my friends. I enjoy lighting candles and I enjoy planting vegetables and flowers. I love playing the guitar and listening to music. I hate to say it but I do sit on the couch a lot and that is pretty relaxing. Sleeping is amazing. Eating good food is essential.

SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

MT: On a plane with many devices on hand.