For the last couple of years, my muse has been mycelial. I mean both that fungus infests my current mss–I’m revising a poetry collection and a novel–and, in a related way, that a mycelial life seems like what I ought to be aiming for. Spreading tendrils underground, sprouting mushrooms after a storm, metabolizing trouble: these are ways of thriving in unfriendly conditions. As I read The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, trying to get my head around possibilities for my books, I’m also thinking more generally about literary ecosystems.
Tsing focuses on international trade in matsutake mushrooms, which grow best among the pines that take over some landscapes after deforestation. She chronicles how diverse foragers in the Pacific Northwest, salvaging in damaged places, sell to bulk buyers who sell to field agents who work for companies who market matsutake at high prices to buyers in Japan, among whom the mushroom is often a gift. It’s an intricate system, and the way Tsing uncovers it provokes as many ideas as a fungus has hyphae.
Exact parallels are beyond me, but Tsing’s book puts me in mind of the small-press po-biz, from which the choicest treasures are supposed to be sifted up to presses where real money is made. Which makes me sometimes a forager (small-press poet sniffing around for inspiration) and sometimes a middleman, as a teacher who earns a good living selling poetry to students and, more stupidly, as an editor who delivers the work of others to a wider public, paying authors with university $ but spending her own time profligately in a way her employers choose to find illegible.
Am I happy in these roles? Often; never entirely. Like Jeannine Hall Gailey, I’m thinking a lot about happiness these days, wondering how I should be approaching my work as a writer/ teacher/ editor. I believe the small press landscape can be rich and fascinating and supportive; it can also be exploitative. Yet the big-five world or even the large independents, where books are product, can be worse. Writing nourishes me, but publishing imposes costs as well as bringing satisfaction. It’s enormous work, followed by a stroke of luck, followed by a lot MORE work. I can see why people throw their hands up.
Yet the various ways I’ve been reaching out ARE bearing fruit. If you don’t read another of my favorite bloggers, Ann E. Michael, you should–she posted a lovely piece recently about Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Like Tsing’s book, her blog is spiky with big questions.
Also, after an investment of MANY hours by Heather Brown and me, I have a West Coast debut coming up. Details on my Events page, but in short I’ll reading with stellar small-press authors at Hugo House in Seattle on July 20 and Mother Foucault’s in Portland on July 21. Late summer and fall will be lively, too, including a July sf con in Pittsburgh that I’d forgotten I’d applied to (!!!) and a reading at the Grolier in Cambridge, Mass. I’ve been turned down or ignored more often than I’ve been offered an (unpaid) spot–yet the yeses add up to a luxe bucket of shrooms.
Wish me luck, because blog-wise I’ll have to go quietly mycelial for a while–we fly to SeaTac a week from today, and I’m planning downtime as well as events. I’ll leave you with a few more favorite passage from Tsing in hopes they infect you, too.
- “Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.”
- “Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option.”
- “Fungi are famous for changing shape in relation to their encounters and environment… What if our indeterminate life form was not the shape of our bodies but rather the shape of our motions over time?”
- “The mushroomers’ freedom is irregular and outside rationalization… Freedom is the negotiation of ghosts on a haunted landscape; it does not exorcise the haunting but works to survive and negotiate it with flair.”
- “One of the strangest projects of privatization and commodification in the early twenty-first century has been the movement to commoditize scholarship… In Europe, administrators demand assessment exercises that reduce the work of scholars to a number, a sum total for a life of intellectual exchange. In the United States, scholars are asked to become entrepreneurs, producing ourselves as brands… Anyone who cares about ideas is forced, then, to create scenes that exceed or escape ‘professionalization.’”
Blogging as escape from literary entrepreneurship, anyone? Or is blogging an aide to self-branding? Like a fungus, perhaps the answer is beyond speciation.