Poetry, politics, and friendship

In the early nineties, I was lucky enough to hear Toni Morrison introduce a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston. Both of them had recently lost manuscripts and many other precious belongings in house fires, and Kingston read a riveting piece about driving toward her neighborhood that day and realizing her home was ablaze. It became part of The Fifth Book of Peace; the burned manuscript was The Fourth Book of Peace, Kingston’s sequel to three legendary books also destroyed by fire.

It was an astonishing evening, but what recurs to me frequently is Morrison’s introduction, in which she described spending a lot of time on the phone with Kingston. “I only wanted to talk to people whose houses had burned down,” Morrison said.

I’ve been in a version of that space lately, avoiding people with dissimilar views about local and international politics. I know, I know, that’s a bad long-term plan. People have to be able to talk across ideological gaps, blah, blah. Being a teacher means centering your working life around that laudable proposition, but when the news is full of cruel parent-child separations and a crooked president trying to do as much damage to democracy as possible; your neighbors are writing bone-headed letters to the paper; and the local KKK capitalizes on it all by leafleting the town–well, you only want to talk with people whose houses have burned down. I am beyond grateful to a smart and feisty group of local friends who will bring wine to my kitchen and hang out to chat about hate mail, colonoscopies, how Sarah Huckabee Sanders is rather petite in person, and publishing poems about Hillary Clinton’s vagina (they say it needs to be a sequence–a “vagenre”–but we’ll see if I, ahem, have it in me). (And thanks, Rise Up Review! Smart and feisty writers, editors, and publishers who do their good work at a distance from small southern towns are also doing a lot for people’s morale.)

So it’s interesting that friendship conditioned by hateful politics turns out to be central to the writing and research I’m doing. This week I visited Virginia State University to read the papers of Amaza Lee Meredith, an African American artist, architect, and teacher who was a sometime neighbor and longtime friend to the poet Anne Spencer. I leafed through scrapbooks Meredith kept full of letters from students, memorabilia about Spencer, and poems she either copied out or clipped from magazines. She also preserved clippings about a few favorite politicians and a receipt from her $5 donation to Adlai Stevenson’s campaign. Meredith and Spencer were friends during the Jim Crow era and they clearly talked urgently and often about educational inequality and school segregation. I’m not comparing my experiences to theirs–Spencer and Meredith and their families were in physical danger, as well as being subject to daily degradations, because they were black in mid-twentieth-century Virginia–but I think negotiating this political moment is tuning my awareness to aspects of Spencer’s situation.

What sustained Spencer when social injustice and literary rejection demoralized her? Her garden. Reading and writing. And friends like Amaza Lee Meredith, to whom she signed “I love you,” late in life, in a shaky hand.

 

Modernists Vs. Zombies, the Rematch

“J’accuse!” shouted our daughter last night. No, not really, but she did hold us sternly to account for misleading her. Our dinner table conversations had given her the impression that science fiction and fantasy were high-prestige literary modes. Now, in her junior year AP course, the most seriously literary English class of her life, she has learned this is not, in fact, true. Poor child, raised by evil spiders in a sticky web of lies.

It’s that pre-Halloween grading-like-a-demon season—what northern hemisphere English professor has time to blog, excepting my insanely prolific spouse, who dragged me to Carrie for a Saturday night study break? Still, I feel provoked enough by an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed to jot a few words of protest over my leftover sweet potatoes. The author, Adam Brooke Davis, seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative writing students. The comment section, while full of fascinating and very smart responses, also brims with the usual ad hominem attacks (“this is so stupid!” “no, YOU’RE stupid!”), and he doesn’t deserve them. Still, as a serious poet and a serious speculative fiction reader, I find “No More Zombies!” seriously depressing. Since the article is paywalled, here’s the opening: “I banned alt-worlding from my advanced creative-writing workshop. Told my students that their fiction had to take place in real environments with real people, facing problems that are actually likely to confront us (as opposed to stories involving international spy rings, penal colonies on Proxima Centauri, or aliens).” He goes on to describe the sf premises of a series of student stories, some of which sound hokey and some kind of interesting. He then laments their reading practices:

“On their own, students were reading The Hunger Games, Twilight, and World War Z, and most of their experience of narrative came from time-constrained, market-determined, sponsor-vetted, focus-group-tested, and committee-created television and movies. I tried to provide some other models, including contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver.”

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this list strongly implies he knows full well that the best contemporary literary fiction is full of ghosts, mutants, dystopian futures, and gothic horror. (Come to think of it, what is my daughter reading for that English class? Morrison’s revenant tale of undead American history, Beloved.) Strong writing can address any kind of story in any milieu; it just requires skill and understanding of the precedents, qualities a good workshop can cultivate in any student who is willing to work hard and read widely.

The sentence that drives a stake through my heart, though, is Davis’ assertion that “I gamely acknowledged the potential for allegorical treatment but tried steering the class toward the real world—what people want, what obstacles they face, that sort of thing.” What a reductive way of reading, and what a narrow way of understanding what’s real! I’m right now preparing to teach a wonderful essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,” in which she argues, “true fantasy is not allegory.” I’m not sure what Davis is getting at near the end of his piece when he alludes to the “purposes” of writing, but as Le Guin insists, books are not tracts. “Relevance,” one of those values realism is supposed to achieve, doesn’t equate to literary power, but even using that benchmark, I can testify that alt-world tales, when they’re very good, can be at least as relevant to our lives as realism. I admire Faulkner, but Tolkien has been of more use in helping me consider what I want and what obstacles I face, to use Davis’ criteria. Fantasy’s engagement with the “pre-human and non-human,” as Le Guin puts it, is more ethically challenging to me than anything I’ve found in Fitzgerald or Hemingway—though I’ve taught their work often and love much of it, their visions do not alter how I live. Le Guin’s vision, however, sustains me.

I’m all for challenging students. Make ‘em read books they don’t like; give them assignments that feel unnatural. I love rhyme, but I’ve created temporary bans against chime when faced with rhyme-addicts in my workshops, just as I try to kick against my own poetic reflexes. And I wouldn’t object to a workshop teacher pointing out that our literary culture has a strong prejudice in favor of realism, and students should get to know this dominant mode, whatever they want to write eventually. Davis projects a sense, though, that realism is somehow the basic, fundamental thing, rather than a fashion from which genre fiction only diverged a few decades ago.

Of course, there are moments in Le Guin’s essay that rankle, too. “The modernists are to blame,” she tells us. “Academic professionalism is at stake—possibly tenure.” Well, yes, I’m a modernism scholar with tenure and I do see justice in Le Guin’s claim. But realism=academic, fantasy=populist is too simple a binary. As I keep saying, my modernist poets are actually pretty fantastic. Eliot, Frost, H.D. and others find poetic power to be essentially mysterious. No more zombies, no more “Waste Land.” If we can’t overthrow our own prejudices as teachers and really see the weirdness latent in the canon we love, how can we expect to open anyone else’s mind, either?

There, a 1000 word rant in a lunch hour. For more considered prose in which I contemplate my father’s likeness to T. Rex, see my recent essay in Verse Wisconsin, “The Dinosaurs Are Breeding.” If you’ll be near Fairmont, West Virginia this Saturday, too, I’ll be reading some poems at Heston Farm Winery from 2-4 with other Kestrel contributors. I’ll try for a selection that’s literary, serious, and not mundane at all, because man, you should see my email in-box. Life is realistic enough: bring on those magical elves.