SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Catherine Martin

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Catherine Martin.

Catherine MartinCatherine Martin is currently a grad student in Emerson College’s Publishing and Writing MA program. She has a BA in English and Spanish from Smith College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Nimrod and Else Where magazines. Catherine grew up in Athens, Georgia, but has spent the past five years in Massachusetts. She regularly returns to the South, but is building a career in publishing in Boston. Catherine has been writing poems since she was 13.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Andrea Beltran

Andrea BeltranEach Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Andrea Beltran.

Andrea Beltran lives in El Paso, Texas, and moonlights as a poet and student. Her poems have recently appeared in Acentos Review, Blood Lotus, caesura, and Pyrta. She blogs at andreakbeltran.wordpress.com.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Dmitry Borshch: Regina Granne Interviews Dmitry Borshch

Doctor KissingerI met Regina at Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery in May of 2009, when her pencil drawings were being exhibited there in a one-person retrospective exhibition called “Increments.”  We became friendly and about six months after our first meeting she sent me the questions below.  I rewrote some of my answers after she passed in January of 2013.

Regina Granne: How has your art changed over time?

Dmitry Borshch: My earliest drawings were abstract, probably influenced by Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, and Soviet Nonconformists, many of whom were abstractionists.  I saw their work at various apartment exhibitions in Dnepropetrovsk and Moscow that I participated in.  My current drawings try to balance between abstraction and figurative, representational art.  I am fascinated by artistic trajectories, so your question is a fitting one to begin our interview with.

RG: What work do you most enjoy doing?

DB: First marks, which establish the structure of the image, are thrilling!  And last ones; they give relative completeness to that image.  It will never be complete, but may become acceptably so to warrant exhibition.

RG: What is your dream project?

DB: I am working on such a project now.  It’s called Iconography.  Inspired by prints after Anthony van Dyck’s drawings which collectively bear the same name, it includes portraits of living artists, writers, politicians, distinguished soldiers.  ‘Koch – Mayor of the City of New York’ and ‘Doctor Kissinger’, also called ‘In seine Hand die Macht gegeben’ belong to this project.

RG: I did some research on you, not too much because I was hoping to find an understanding of your art through this conversation.  Are you a ‘mixed-media artist’?

DB: ULAN, a project of the Getty Research Institute, classifies me as a ‘mixed-media artist’ because I photograph drawings and exhibit these photographs instead of drawings themselves.  They feel the marriage of photography and draughtsmanship justifies such a classification.

Fencing on the Gallows TreeRG: Have you done photographic series unrelated to drawing?

DB: Yes, one of them was described thus: “I realized after completing much of the series – “When girls meet, hearts warm!” is an unwitting response to Diane Arbus’s “Girls in matching swimsuits.”  The delay is understandable as her picture and mine are not directly connected. What I hope connects them is a feeling the viewer gets of strong poetic exchange between their subjects’ faces – an interplay of facial movements, heightened by framing and vignetting.  Often a certain ludicrous quality attracts me to one subject or another, expressed in overapplied makeup (the most made up faces are the most revealing, I find), overbleached teeth or hairdos that are ludicrously overdone. After expanding the series to include males I renamed it “When friends meet, hearts warm!” or “Friend, you are my second self!” I view these pictures as manipulated found objects, shot with a disposable camera by some “disposable” photographer – me, subjects themselves whom I directed, a bystander…”

RG: What motivated you to make drawings like The Undertaker’s Pale Children?

DB: I distinguish between narrow and broad motivations, which may not always interact.  The second type of motivation is a desire to speak as an artist — silence, especially artistic, is painful. The first involves being challenged by narrower, often technical problems – arranging successfully a group or one-figure portrait, succeeding as a landscapist, still-life painter.

RG: What would you like us to know about Betrothal of the Virgins?

DB: The word on male figure’s cap means groom, on female’s — bride.

RG: Blue Architects, The Undertaker’s Pale Children, Fencing on the Gallows Tree belong to a series.  What is its title and why?

DB: ‘Exiled from Truth: Nine Allegories by Dmitry Borshch’ is the title under which some allegorical pictures are collected, possibly more than nine: the series continues to develop.  They are united by color, style, and technique, so I view them as a homogeneous collection of drawings.  Allegory, drawn or written, is a product of that mind which regards truth as existing-in-absence: it does exist yet is absent from our view.  Allegories like mine would not be needed if truth were openly present.

RG: What is the best advice you’ve been given?

DB: Art books offer many valuable advices, I cannot place one of them above others. They mostly confirm what I feel instinctively.

RG: What jobs have you done other than being an artist?

DB: I was a student — at universities, never art schools — then became a self-taught printmaker, draughtsman, sculptor. No other jobs.

Koch - Mayor of the City of New YorkRG: Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.

DB: I admire certain drawings of Michelangelo, Dürer, and Leonardo, but no contemporary artist should be compared to them. Among contemporaries, I find Semyon Faibisovich, Boris Mikhailov, Chuck Close admirable. Not being a photographer or photorealist, I doubt anyone would compare me to them. It would be pleasing if someone did.

RG: What’s your favorite art work?

DB: No favorites. I return to many works for reasons that continually change.

About Regina Granne:
http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/regina_granne.php

Guest Post, Joe Neal: On Being Moved

Joe NealWe read Where The Red Fern Grows aloud in Mrs. Howard’s seventh grade English class. It was the kind of droning, affectless reading young teens are best at. For two weeks, a student would stumble through the required pages until relieved by the next student in the row. With no thought given to punctuation, stress, or intensity, we lumbered through Billy Coleman’s time with his hounds Old Dan and Little Ann. Mrs. Howard was patient the whole time, correcting the big words and rephrasing dialogue to indicate the appropriate colloquial delivery.

This isn’t coming from a student who was bookish and shuttered at the butchering of literature. I hadn’t really discovered books. That would come years later. At the time, I was into skateboarding and my chain wallet that made a racket against the plastic chair of my desk. I didn’t have any money, but I did have a wallet that was connected to a belt loop of my oversized jeans by a choker chain. This is all to say that my priorities were elsewhere, and I too struggled with reading aloud.

Also, this was seventh grade. Even if I could have read with excellence and clarity, I didn’t want to give the impression that I was ‘trying.’ Trying meant you thought you were smart, and smart was vulnerable. It’s embarrassing that I ever thought this way, but there it is. Anonymity was more important than elocution.

Despite our terrible delivery, the story still got through. I remember being secretly terrified when Old Dan and Little Ann protected Billy from the mountain lion. They didn’t stand a chance. Billy eventually killed the mountain lion with an axe, but Old Dan’s wounds were fatal.

Out of nowhere, Mrs. Howard took over the reading after Old Dan died. She said she had read these scenes to her class every year, and every year she cried. It was some kind of odd tradition. At most, I thought she might get a little misty; maybe a couple movie-style tears down her cheek. I had no idea.

The tears started when Little Ann slept next to Old Dan’s dead body, not knowing what else to do. Mrs. Howard held the book with one hand and wiped her nose and eyes with a tissue. She eventually just held the tissue to her eyes as she read. Her voice broke during Dan’s burial and Ann’s loss of appetite, and she wept when Billy found Ann dead on top of Dan’s grave. It was as though these were her dogs, and she was going through the loss for the first time. But, it didn’t make sense. She had done this for years and knew exactly what was going to happen. Also, it was a book, and none of it ever happened.

Mrs. Howard smiled at us when she finished; her face was red and she was still wiping her nose. No one laughed and no one clapped. We were a bunch of mean kids that didn’t understand that kind of vulnerability. Plus, it had come so fast and hard. The adult was crying and crying big. It just didn’t compute. She gathered herself just as the bell rang. We finished the book the next day, and no one ever asked her about the crying.

This was not the moment when I decided I would be a writer. Nor, is it the moment when I understood the importance of fiction. In fact, nothing occurred to me while Mrs. Howard read and cried. It went under that awful category teens have for anything unexpected: that was weird.

Decades later I was watching the television with my wife, and a clip from the 1974 version of Where The Red Fern Grows triggered the memory. I started the story casually, but I burst into tears when I got to the part where Mrs. Howard cried. I just couldn’t finish the story without crying. I could finally see that day as an adult, from the front of the class, and the sheer bravery of the act was overwhelming. I could appreciate Mrs. Howard opening up to her class year after year only to be looked at in horror by a bunch of bowl-cutted, acned teens. She showed us that it was okay to be moved by something. In fact, she showed it was vital to find that which moves us. It was a protest against our incredible apathy. It was a hope for decency. Tragically, it was the kind of gift that only makes sense years later. She had to have known her crying would initially be lost on us, put away and not dealt with until years later, not until we had been truly vulnerable in front of someone else. Like I said, right after it happened I just closed my book and went to lunch. Mrs. Howard might have watched our faces to see if anything registered, but that part I don’t remember. And I wasn’t there years after, but I am fairly sure Mrs. Howard stood in front of the classroom each year and cried for her students every time Old Dan died.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Meg Tuite

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Meg Tuite.

Meg TuiteMeg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize.  She is fiction editor of Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press, author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books, Her Skin is a Costume (2013) Red Bird Chapbooks, and won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014). She teaches at the Santa Fe Community College.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Amanda Nicole Corbin

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Amanda Nicole Corbin.

Amanda CorbinAmanda Nicole Corbin is a Buckeye fan currently in Salt Lake City, who has been published in Ellipsis, The Vehicle, Boston Literary, the forthcoming issue of Paper Nautilus, and others. She is editor and founder of Pure Coincidence Magazine and measures value in how many burritos she could buy.

 

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, William Black: Upon Re-Reading “The Literature of Exhaustion”

John Barth, in his famous essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967), tells us that for artists of all kinds “to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect.”  At the time of his writing, the urgent question put to himself and his peers, as Barth understood it, was not how to follow Kafka and Joyce, the most technically up to date writers of the early twentieth century, “but how to succeed those who succeeded Kafka and Joyce.”  By Barth’s lights, Nabokov, Beckett, and Borges had done the most to keep the modes of fiction in touch with the middle decades of the century, but even in the mid-1960s, as those master innovators had reached the twilight of their careers, “a good many current novelists write turn-of-the-(20th-) century novels, only in more or less twentieth century language and about contemporary people and topics.”

Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, John Barth and (good lord!) metafiction—I have the feeling that maybe this may not be the most auspicious opening for a guest post at S[r], a lively online journal not without its exciting examples of literary innovation, and certainly not without a long roster of writers I admire, but nonetheless a publisher of a great many poems, essays, and short stories (including my own) that Barth would surely have recognized as technically out of date.  And what’s wrong with that?  Beauty can be reached by way of many avenues, some of them comfortably timeworn.  We don’t all have to be, as my students sometimes groan (in the very classrooms where Barth once lectured), so “esoteric” and “elitist” and “academic” as Barth.

But Barth’s question is not an academic one.  Moreover, it’s one I think we all ought to wrestle with, continually, regardless of our individual aesthetic inclinations.  In the end, Barth’s is a question of how writers engage, or choose not to engage, with the world they live in.

When the Barth of “Exhaustion” looked out his window, he saw a world in near-apocalyptic upheaval.  President Kennedy had been murdered, The Cold War was raging, the Vietnam War was quickly escalating, Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society were promoting the use of atomic bombs in Asia, the Civil Rights Movement was meeting violent resistance, and looming over every crisis was the relatively new fact that hostile superpowers had amassed nuclear weapons in numbers capable of destroying civilization many times over.  Meanwhile, Madison Avenue advertisers had honed their ability to create persuasive alternate realities free from the anxieties of history.

Barth describes the ethos in terms of “ultimacies—in everything from weaponry to theology” and wonders how out-of-date techniques could manage the task of making art of a world on the verge of extinction.  The current conditions required new techniques that acknowledged and made use of what the 19th century could not have imagined.  Most of “The Literature of Exhaustion” is dedicated to delineating and praising the artistry of ultimacy in Beckett and, especially, Borges, whose stories tend to begin after everything has already been written and proceed to comment in the form of literary criticism—a literature of the end of things if ever there was one.

Barth the writer of fiction took his greatest, most profitable lessons from Borges.  In “Exhaustion,” he praises Borges for his metafictions that “disturb us metaphysically” because “[w]hen characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence.”  This description of Borges’s stories serves as an equally apt description of Barth’s own Lost in the Funhouse, which features the famous cut out-able Mobius strip that reads ONCE UPON A TIME THERE on one side and WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN on the other, so that regardless of the techniques Barth employs story by story, the metaphysically disturbing fictive aspect of existence stands always and vividly in the foreground.

Consider the fictitious aspect of our national life as Barth worked on Lost in the Funhouse.  Seen in its light, could there be a set of more up-to-date techniques than those displayed in Funhouse?  Nearly every story is an imitation of a story which is itself, if you believe Aristotle, as Barth does, an imitation of human action, and this at a time when human action, on both the consumer and political levels anyway, were imitations of fictions.

So I beg the question:  who are the technically up-to-date writers of our time?  What techniques are so of our time that they speak to and for the world we share?

First and foremost, what should our criteria be?

Our criteria would, of course, have to begin with a sense of the current condition of the world, and it’s seems that the current state of affairs shares a good deal with the world Barth saw.  Substitute Iraq for Vietnam, for example, and we once again see geopolitics and many, many actual lives being frankly determined by the fictions of state.  That said, one of the most significant distinctions between American life in the first and second decades of the 21st century and that of Barth’s 1960s is that we, like those who trusted the Mayan sages and their apocalyptic calendar, have lived through more than our share of doomsday predictions, enough that they no longer make us jumpy.  Most of our population has been fully informed of the once-terrifying nuclear threats since childhood.  Even the very real possibility of midtown dirty bombs doesn’t keep us awake at night.  For that matter, seeing as we may witness ice-free Arctic summers within a decade, there’s an equally strong chance that we’ll see our species wiped out a lot less suddenly than our parents’ once expected, but even in that case there are no NO NUKES-styled marches or star-studded rock concerts in favor of cap-and-trade.  We seem content to roll our eyes at Fox News’ line-up of global warming deniers the same I way I never tire of the story of my former landlord, a third grade teacher in Brooklyn who was stockpiling guns and ammo (I kid you not) with which to combat Bill Clinton’s Y2K conspiracy to takeover the country (yes, the country he was already president of).

So by themselves, the techniques of ultimacy won’t do.  Our technique must also express our boredom of threats of ultimacy.  Regardless, to whatever degree we’re interested in charting a path forward, we would do well to look back at the best examples of 1960s-styled metafiction.  They almost necessarily provide the building blocks for whatever the currently up-to-date will invent.

I say this primarily for reasons “Exhaustion” does not address, namely that Barth’s metafiction represents an inflection point in the development of the most radical, most modern, most self-aware set of techniques yet invented, those of the English Romantics.  And almost everything we (especially those of us in the creative writing industry, leading or attending workshops, etc.) call postmodern or experimental has deep roots in the techniques of Romanticism.  It was Coleridge and Wordsworth who first understood that the concurrent rising tides of democracy and consumer capitalism robbed European and American culture of a single received Christian teleology and left in its place as many teleologies as there are individual people, each with a consciousness that continually mediates experience by, among other things, comparing it to received stories or narratives of social convention, just as Ambrose in “Lost in the Funhouse” cannot fully participate in his first erotic experience, distracted as he is by the recognition that he’s having an “erotic” experience.

The result is that our once reliable metaphysics was disturbingly de destabilized, just as Barth describes.  We became both the readers of the fiction of our lives, recognizing which juncture of the plot we’ve reached and how we can expect to proceed, and the writers of them, in that we are in a continual process of producing and consuming our own self-image.   It’s important, I think, to understand that this insight about our being the characters, readers, and authors of our own lives does not originate with Borges or, for that matter, the 20th century, and that the techniques required to make art of the modern condition do wait for the 20th century to find employment.  Lord Byron, especially, and John Keats interrupted their own compositions to comment upon the characters and action and language, i.e., the making of the very work we’re reading, as we’re reading, and thereby shattering the fictional dream most of us work terribly hard to keep undisturbed.  When referring to 18th and 19th century authorial intrusions, we speak of “romantic irony.”  Dr. Anne Mellor, who is brilliant on the matter, describes it thus:  “Romantic irony grew out of philosophical skepticism and the social turbulence of the French Revolution and American War of Independence; it posits a universe founded in chaos and incomprehensibility rather than in a divinely ordered teleology.”  But one could also say that the point is to “disturb us metaphysically” because when the author becomes a reader of and a character within the fiction they’re composing, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our existence.

What’s disturbing about this reminder is that it calls into question our authenticity as selves.  Calling the self into question is largely what Wordsworth’s Prelude is about—a long, never finished, continually revised introduction to the wholesale revelation of self Wordsworth had intended to write but could never properly begin because the introduction could never be completed.  Autobiography can never be started, because each possible starting point is so ramified, and the self is so bottomless and unknowable, that only the haze of unknowability can be fixed to the page—such is the Romantic epistemology of self.  To transmit to us the feeling of a unknowability, indeed the constant erosion of presumed knowledge, the Prelude gives us sentences so long and so complex that we often lose our way in the middle of them, forgetting where we started.

Keats may give us a different set of techniques, but they bring us to the same end, most obviously and powerfully in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and its ditties of no tune.

I could go on—and on.  But for your sake I’ll point in the direction of just one more pertinent example.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with Edgar Allan Poe, was Borges’ favorite writer.  In fact, and just to complete the circle, Borges tells us that Hawthorne prefigured Kafka, who John Barth sees as Borges’ precursor before choosing to build on Borges’ Hawthorne- and Kafka-infused techniques, the most up-to-date techniques, still, in the late 1960s.

Borges’ favorite Hawthorne story is “Wakefield,” about which he writes very beautifully and very persuasively, so I’ll limit my notes here to a different story, “Young Goodman Brown.”

As the story opens, Goodman Brown is leaving his wife to set off into the woods, not because he is motivated by some personal need or sense of mission but because “tonight of all nights” he must.  Brown appears to be a character in a Medieval parable, less a person than human shape plugged into an archetypal plot whose operations will bring us to some Christian lesson, and for the most part, the story’s proceedings are consistent with this expectation.  In the woods, Brown meets a man who seems to be or represent the Devil himself, and the woods and its environs take on familiar symbolic dimensions.  Further, the Devil figure’s walking stick, when dropped to the forest floor, transforms into a writhing snake.

Or does it?

The apparent parable is regularly punctured by the intrusion of an authorial voice that disturbs the apparently clear and stable metaphysics of “Young Goodman Brown’s” world.  In the case of the staff-turned-snake, the authorial voice adds the possibility that what Brown is witnessing is nothing more than an “ocular illusion.”  We’re invited to think that maybe what we’re reading isn’t in fact the case.  Maybe there’s something less parabolic and more psychological, less archetypal and more characterological, taking place, and we adjust our reading accordingly, aligning ourselves to the story’s foundation of doubt.  Maybe, despite Brown and despite the intrusive authorial voice, we’re still operating within a Christian metaphysics, or maybe, despite the parabolic structure and archetypal trappings, we’re encountering a highly defined subjectivity.  Either way, we can’t be sure, and the uncertainty, just as Barth suggests, is highly disturbing.  We read on in hopes of a conclusive ending, but what we find is that the opposed possibilities remain intact: Brown might have in fact experienced things just as the story describes them, or the events of the story were merely dreamed, in which case we’ve been reading the operations of Brown’s subconscious, that is, the greatest depths of his subjectivity.

All we can say with confidence is that we and Brown are both forever changed.  The nature of the change is upsettingly modern: appearances deceive; people maybe or may not be what they seem; there may or may not be a God and a Devil; our experiences may be the product of divine order or, just as easily, the manifestations of indifferent natural forces.  If we wish, we can choose one explanation at the expense of the other, but either way we’re supplying cause and effect where none may exists, which is to say we’re creating fictions with the power to shape our lives.

What I hope to have done is trace a reasonably straight line from the radical revolt signaled by Romanticism to some of the fullest expressions of postmodernism.  The point of such a line is to suggest that despite the insistence of the creative writing industry—founded by people who rejected the modernism in flourishing upheaval all around them in favor of a far more stable and rational poetics—we have lived for more than 200 years amidst a radical, thoroughly modern, and not yet fully acknowledged literary tradition, one that, even in its 1790s incarnation, is more technically up-to-date than most of us are.  This is worth some thought, even if we choose, as most of us will, not to embrace these techniques completely or ever to strive to be technically up-to-date.  The worst that can happen is that we affirm our out-of-date, perhaps even nostalgic inclinations, and that affirmation will help us become both more fully ourselves and more aware of our art’s relationship to the world.

 

Feel free to check out my related essay in World Literature Today.

Guest Post, Jim Daniels: Poetry Hickie

Jim DanielsI am currently working on my fourth screenplay—wait, wait, I’m not going to try and sell it to you. Everybody’s got a screenplay in the freezer these days, to protect it from fire. The house can burn down, but they’ll be rich once they sell that screenplay.

My screenplays result in no-budget independent films with odd lengths like 38 minutes or 64 minutes. Our movies are like scavenger hunts where the prize is going into debt.  When I wrote the first one, “No Pets,” back in 1994, an adaptation of my own title short story from my first collection (book still available!), I thought that film could maybe be a gateway drug to poetry sales.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty naïve, looking back on it. While I’ve continued to write screenplays, I do so with the full knowledge—no, certainty—that these little films will result in zero additional sales of my books of poetry and fiction.

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I wonder how many copies celebrity poets like Jewel, Leonard Nimoy, Suzanne Somers, John Boy Thomas, Jimmy Stewart sold. Maybe I don’t want to know.

We sold out the “world premiere” of “No Pets” at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) in downtown Pittsburgh, seating capacity 1300, at $10 a ticket (including reception with food, live music, and many cookies cooked by director Tony Buba’s aunts and cousins), I stood in front of the theater under the marquee and said to Tony, “If this was a poetry reading and we were handing out $10 bills instead of taking them, we still wouldn’t be able to fill this place.”

I asked my poetry publisher then, the University of Pittsburgh Press, to set up a table at the reception to sell my latest book, M-80. I believe we sold zero copies, though someone might have felt sorry for me and purchased one before the end of the night. 1300 people who came out to see a movie, and none of them curious about the poetry of the guy who penned the script? Hmmph.

As this, and later films, “Dumpster” and Mr. Pleasant,” made the rounds of minor film festivals, I took fewer and fewer books with me until I stopped taking them all together.

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Last summer, my wife Kristin and I were in Montreal, staying at a B&B on the outskirts of the city near a lovely park when we noticed as twilight descended that people were beginning to gather near a small outdoor theater. It was free movie night in the park! We entered, following the flow of the crowd. Of course, the program was in French, so I wondered if I was misreading it—it said something about a poet reading before the movie.

Sure enough, a very polite older man walked out onto the stage in a flowing white robe to polite applause and read about a half dozen poems. I heard a line that I translated as “the bowling ball of death,” but I suspect I was wrong.  He didn’t look like a bowler.  He exited the stage to the same level of polite applause, then they turned out the light on the stage and started the film, a gripping story of a civil war in some faraway land.

How cool is that, I thought. Maybe we should start having poetry readings before films in the U. S. of A. A park near our home in Pittsburgh shows films on the hillside during the summer. They often have a local rock band play until it gets dark and the film starts. But somehow poetry doesn’t seem to go with Frisbees and dogs. The old hippies who seem to appear at every free outdoor concert in Pittsburgh might have trouble dancing to most poems, despite how rhythmically we read them, despite when we sweep up our voices at the ends of lines in the patented poetry voice.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.

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I think I’m trying to write about my frustrations with the limited poetry audience in this country. I know, I know, some people like it small, but I’m not one of them. I’m still stewing over my mother-in-law’s recent comment that she likes my new book better than the last one because she didn’t understand that one at all. That’s what I get for trying to be “experimental” in my fifties. I want her to understand my writing, despite her being my mother-in-law and all.

*

Ask a friend, “Hey, you wanna go to the movies?”

Friend: “Sure.”

Ask that same friend, “Hey, you wanna go hear a poetry reading?”

 See the look your friend just gave you. Your friend doesn’t have to say a word with a look like that. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture might be worth a thousand and one.

*

I love movies, and I love getting my words up there on the BIG SCREEN spoken by people much more talented than me in speaking. I believe we call them actors. I love sitting in the dark. I think more poetry readings should be held in the dark. Wouldn’t it be great to make out in the back of a dark room while someone is up front reading poetry?

“Oh, this hickie? I got it in the back row at the poetry reading the other night.”

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The problem is that I have a permanent poetry hickie.

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We can’t all be polite Canadians. When I lived in Detroit, we used to drive across the border—over the bridge or through the tunnel—just to meet some polite people and exchange pleasantries with customs inspectors about our Canadian plans.

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Everyone’s a critic. At the sold-out Byham nee Fulton, one of my university colleagues came up and said, “Nice crowd.” Not nice script, or nice film, not great dialogue, memorable characters, not four stars or even three. “Nice crowd.” It’s now a catch-phrase with my wife when we’ve attended some dull event that we need to be polite about.

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Canada has the best national anthem. I used to sing it as a lullaby to my children when they were younger. I even looked up the words so I could sing the whole thing. If you run into me on the street, ask me to sing “O Canada,” and I will, at the drop of a hat, at the drop of a coin, and, once I start, it will get so quiet that you can hear that hat or that coin drop. In the distance, dogs will begin to howl. And you will say, “Great crowd.” And I’ll say “The bowling ball of death.” And you will say, “Is that a hickie on your neck.” And I will say, “Wanna buy a copy of my new book of poems?” And you’ll say, “I’ve got a movie to catch.”

Roll the credits.

Guest Post, Erin Regan: Edgar Cardenas Interview: One Hundred Little Dramas

Edgar CardenasInterview Editor Erin Regan recently had the opportunity to interview Edgar Cardenas, a photographer and Ph.D. candidate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University who integrates art and science in his work. His photography, taken from a collection titled “One Hundred Little Dramas,” which explores his own backyard as a natural place, was published in the 12th issue of Superstition Review.

Erin Regan: On your website you included a statement about the project that’s peppered with quotes by Aldo Leopold. What has your relationship with Leopold’s work been like?

Edgar Cardenas: I grew up close to Madison, Wisconsin but I didn’t know who Leopold was until I started my Ph.D. in Sustainability. I started, like most do, with Sand County Almanac which struck home. I related to his musings of being out in the woods and close to farm life.

In Sand County Almanac, Leopold makes clear his intent to integrate aesthetics, ethics, and ecology; I had and continue to have similar sentiments regarding the integration of art and sustainability science. I think he was using the terminology of ecology but his interest was the overall health of the community, which included humans. Many would identify his sentiment with a “strong sustainability,” one focused on ecological integrity that places humans in the system, not above it.

This initial introduction to his work led me to read more of his essays and biographies as well. He was a pragmatist, his attempt to unite aesthetics, ethics, and ecology were based on an understanding that holism is the way forward. He pushed against the reductionist methods of understanding the world and realized they were insufficient for understanding, not only the ecological system but our place in that system. He also pushed against preservationist or conservationist ideologies, there was nature to be found just as easily in the city as there was in the wilderness, it was a matter of looking curiously at the world and understanding how things connected to each other.

His essays weren’t the impetus for beginning the backyard project but they definitely kept me company as the project unfolded. They became ways of understanding and exploring the backyard. I would, often times, say to myself, “If Leopold was in my backyard what would he say? What questions would he ask? What would excite him? What might confuse him?” Sometimes I would make changes to the backyard or begin to get a little controlling about how I wanted things. Playing out his presence in the space helped reset my intentions and I could go back to openly observing and discovering. This openness to discovery was critical because the backyard is a small space, I worked on it for 3+ years, so you have to find new ways to look at it continuously. Leopold was one of the influences in exploring and eventually framing what the edited work would look like.

ER: I love how your work reclaims backyards as wild spaces. Would you describe the process of discovering your own backyard as a wild place?

EC: As my artist statement mentions, my backyard was a very undesirable space. Growing up in the midwest and then moving to the northeast, I was unfamiliar with the desert’s ecological pulses. The backyard looked dead when I left for a 10-day project in the Czech Republic. It rained practically the entire time I was away, so I returned to a very different, and green, backyard. The realization that the desert was alive, just waiting for water, started me photographing. I wanted the starting point to also have an ecological connection.

I was also grappling with what sustainability meant at the time. We often think about sustainability in a large and abstracted human-environment interaction manner and in a simple, “we should recycle and compost” manner. I was interested in the inbetween space, what “personal sustainability” looked like and what it meant to be engaged in it, not just studying it; the backyard felt like a good start.

I was also interested in what someone with very little money could do; most of our current sustainability solutions seem to require significant capital investment. I collected wood that was thrown out to build my planter boxes. I also collected food waste from the School of Sustainability and sustainability students to keep my compost going. Tree services would drop off chipped wood in the frontyard and I would take it to the back one wheelbarrow at a time. I would dig up seedlings in the frontyard and replant them in the back. I collected seeds from several places for planting in the backyard as well. My intention was not to restore the backyard to some previous desert site but be ecologically minded in its design. Humans and animals engineer the environment regularly so I was aware that I wasn’t returning it to a former “wild space.” I was becoming mindful of how I would use the space. That meant compost for nutrient-cycling, planter boxes for food, as well as drought-tolerant trees and plants that provided food, shelter, and a habitat for the small critters that shared the space with us. I wanted to bring the biological diversity up to a maintainable level, which also meant being mindful of the water usage, and nutrients. By the end, I was supplementing the plants exclusively off the compost I was making.

That process really got the “discovering” going; I learned a great deal about my relationship to the space as I worked in it and changed it. The process really became a ritual of stepping out into the backyard with the camera and looking, exploring, and engaging. The most important realization, to me, was that personal experience connects you to the land. I was learning to see ecological principles at play, but I was also growing to care about the ecological health of the space, from the compost, to the insects, to the lizards, to the birds; they mattered to me.

ER: Animals and insects are very much present but sometimes hidden in your photos, which seems to mirror our relationship with animals. What was it like searching for those creatures in your yard? Did invisible things become visible to you in the process?

EC: I think the natural assumption for most people is that not much is going on in the backyard. I was fascinated by the fact that the more time I spent in the space the more I saw; it wasn’t just things, it was processes as well. I knew when the house sparrows were mating and when to be looking out for fallen nestlings; we took several to a bird rescue. I knew where lizards were laying eggs in the yard and would be conscious to stay clear of the space so that I didn’t step on their eggs.

My “seeing” developed, I learned what to look for. Often times I was on my hands and knees looking or standing in my plants. I would go out at different times of day, so much happens just before the sun rises, so often times I would be outside waiting in the dark so as not to miss anything. To me the whole thing is resonant in the quote by Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I had to learn to see in new ways. That has transferred to how I see the desert when I go out too.

ER: In addition to being a photographer, you are earning your PhD in sustainability. Would you explain how these pursuits intersect in your life and work?

EC: I find that the separating of the arts and sciences has done both of them a disservice. They are both fantastic and divergent ways of knowing the world. When I began the program my intention was to find ways to unite the two. I wanted to bridge the knowledge that is acquired in the sciences with the humanistic interrogations the arts bring to the dilemmas sustainability discourse is engaged in. In many ways, I’m picking up Leopold’s challenge to integrate ecology, ethics, and aesthetics for a holism that is necessary in sustainability. That holism needs rigor though. Herbert Simon states, “If we are to learn our social science from novelists, then the novelists have to get it right. The scientific content must be valid.” We are now in a space where, not only does the science need to be valid, the art must be salient as well. I take both endeavours seriously. For me, art and science are a discourse; my scientific learning helps push my art forward, usually by introducing new questions that I have to grapple with. Then I will make art and that process helps me reflect on the scientific questions I’m asking and how I feel about those questions. I can’t see myself doing one without the other; it would stunt my intellectual growth and creativity.

ER: Since completing “One Hundred Little Dramas,” what does your personal brand of sustainability look like?

EC: It has further grounded me in some of the ideas I had regarding sustainability. I find ecological literacy to be a critical component of understanding how we are in the world. I often felt that I had to somehow prove that art belonged in sustainability discourse. I think I’m beyond having to prove it. Now I am working towards what to interrogate with this way of knowing; it’s so powerful and underutilized right now.  One of the big pushes for the project was exploring what an “ethic” looked like. This isn’t about judging people and classifying their actions as sustainable or unsustainable, but of understanding how an ethic develops. Leopold’s work resonates in a significant way for me. Through an ecological and aesthetic development of the backyard project I simultaneously began to understand how and why I cared about a space like the backyard. We go out to the wilderness to see nature and vistas, but the most intimate natural experience I found was the one in my backyard.

The most significant change however was understanding the importance of empathy. We speak a lot about human/environment interactions in sustainability but not about human/environment relationships. I think our relationship, how we care about the world is critical. I also feel we shy away from this idea because it sounds so unscientific and subjective; it’s hard to scale up empathy in a systematically controlled fashion. Nonetheless, if we are to be sustainable we actually have to care about a place. We need to have an intimate relationship with that place, get to know it like you would a friend. That means you can visit it regularly, see it change, know its hidden secrets. You can’t do this with vacation places but backyards are wonderful for this; you take care of them and they take care of you. There was a sense of loss when I moved. I think that’s a very powerful motivator for being more sustainable, having an emotional connection to a natural place.

Guest Post, Fred Leebron: Considering the Old and the New: Two Thoughts on Craft and Industry

Fred LeebronOn Craft: Escaping the Paradigm

Lately I’ve noticed in some of the work of colleagues and students and especially in my own work the tendency to stay within the safety of self-created paradigms.  By this, I mean that as individual narratives progress, writers who have had success with prior narratives often find themselves employing similar strategies to resolve the challenges and exploit the possibilities offered in their current work.

A writer who tends to ‘muscle up’ in an ending will repeat that tendency in his next ending, having experienced success with it.  Or, a writer who tends to “disappear” one of her characters in one novel will have another character vanish in another novel.  I’m always impressed by those writers who are capable of doing almost everything seemingly new from book to book, and yet that seems like an almost impossible task.

Still, sometimes it’s worthwhile to set out for oneself what has been accomplished in a prior work, literally listing its elements and grinding them into one’s consciousness, before proceeding with the next work.  Point of view, setting, pivotal plot points, the treatment of time can all be boiled down to just a few words, and suddenly there on the page is your novel in a nutshell, and you can see exactly what it is the past work wasn’t doing that you might pursue in the next work.

Also, it can’t hurt to note featured characteristics of the protagonists and supporting cast.  Does every family have an abandoned father?  Is every family missing a sibling?  Is every son restless and unemployed?  Is the boss at work always kind and understanding?  Is there someone always ripping someone else off?  Is someone’s heart always getting broken?  Is the kitchen always the dominant room in the house?  Is it the mailman who always delivers the bad news, or email, or the phone line?

What I’m looking for in this kind of exercise is a way of challenging myself to try as much new technique and content as possible in the next work.

This isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t mine deeply what Richard Burgin terms their own “emotional real estate,” but that an awareness of all the strategies and characteristics being employed can be helpful in making the new work as fresh and surprising as possible, not only for the reader, but for the writer as well.  There is, for an obvious example, a lot of different technique and content accomplished from DUBLINERS through PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN to ULYSSES, even while we can clearly see some of the sameness involved.

A few months ago, I sat down with a list of all my stories and manuscripts and was able to capture pretty clearly all the work in close to two paradigms, with all the tried and true crutches that I had been leaning on.  Then I wrote the opposite of each of the elements, just to see what that would look like.  It was pretty invigorating to recognize that as a writer there were still a lot of techniques and types of content I haven’t even tried, here at the age of 52, having been taught in a hundred workshops and having led a few thousand more, with a handful of novels and a bucketful of stories published, and four times that dropped into trash cans and recycling bins over the past thirty-some years.

What we sometimes learn from studying and deconstructing the straitjacket of Freytag’s Triangle is that all the stories imaginable have already been written, but what we might learn from a cold-hearted study of our own work is that there is likely a lot we haven’t tried.

On Industry: Free Content—the other side of the coin

Recently a writer told me that the next new thing is free content.  Okay, maybe not so recently, but at least within the last year.  Free content is it, she said.  Everyone needs to blog and everyone needs to offer some good free writing in order to further their careers. And the argument was clear: eventually free content will get you paid.

I don’t believe in free content.  At all.  Although of course I am a reader of free content all the time, especially on news websites and facebook links and espn.com and philly.com (my hometown).  I love free content.  And it is despicable, too, when it is both delivered free and obtained from the writer for free.

Writers should be paid, like dentists should be paid and gardeners should be paid and cooks should be paid. While it’s certainly true that on some of these websites the writers are getting paid, increasingly literary writers are willing to donate their words in the hope that down the line eventually they’ll get paid.  It makes me nervous and it makes me sad.

We cling to the success stories of self-publication and gratis publication, in the hope that there will be a spread of success, but these realized dreams are the exception rather than the rule.  Yet as writers we are trained to write for a larger audience, because otherwise the writing is private and therefore not real, and this leads us again to the desire to share the work any way we can, and more often than not (considering that over one million people in the U.S. say they write), that sharing has been free of charge for the reader and free of income for the writer.

You might think that by arguing against free content, I am, as a new contributor to Superstition Review, biting the hand that feeds me.  But SR isn’t feeding me anything, and there’s a good argument that it is actually taking food from my mouth.  How did this happen?  I stumbled across the website a few months ago, thought it very spiffy and professional and compelling, and sent in a story, assuming (and we all know about assuming) that payment would be involved if the piece were taken.  But any moron who takes a closer look can see that that is not the case.  My error.

Every publishing endeavor and every educational endeavor I have designed (this includes MFA programs in Europe and Latin America and Charlotte, a summer program in Roanoke, a small press out of North Carolina, and a literary magazine very new to the world) will always pay writers something for almost everything they do, the exception being the reading and selection of work.  At Unboxed Books, none of us got paid, when we ran a contest for a 5000 prize in fiction, though the final judge got paid and of course the winner got 5000.  At Qu, the new literary magazine out of the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte, we pay for every accepted piece (all right, very modestly, but still we pay), while the readers don’t get paid at all.  Now I’m wondering if that is a double standard.  I guess not, because for graduate students and interns involved in reading and selecting work, the work experience constitutes a kind of payment.  In that sense, I can see now, it is not much different from publication without income.  And yet I do feel differently about the two.  I could probably make a lame and garbled argument about free work’s benefit being limited to the individual and free writing’s benefit being consumed by the masses, and I’m sure you could go ahead and skewer that.

So what’s your take? How important is payment for your writing, compared to the publication credit?  Can I go tell my boss in Charlotte that instead of increasing payment to Qu contributors what we really want to do is eliminate it entirely?  Or should we reconsider the nonpayment of contest and slush pile readers and rehash the now old argument about the ethics of unpaid internships?  Would you rather see our scant funds devoted to enhanced website design or the small honoraria we pay for accepted work?  All things being equal, is it more important to you to have your work appear somewhere aesthetically pleasing or somewhere that pays you?

Or, as my father once asked me in a surprisingly meaningful ‘career’ quiz: which do you value the most?  Money, Power, or Achievement?

Choose one.

And, yeah, I wrote this piece for free.