Wednesday, August 29, 2007
My new book, Gold Star Road, is now available from Barrow Street Press (www.barrowstreet.org), from Amazon, or from Small Press Distribution (www.spdbooks.org).
Here are two poems from Gold Star Road, followed by links to others from the book that appear elsewhere on the web, and jacket blurbs from poets Molly Peacock, Linda McCarriston, Afaa Michael Weaver, and D. Nurkse.
for Sara Terry
A trout on a river-bank
knows where the river is;
a fox in a trap
knows the time,
but a man or woman
only knows the story
hope tells, or fear,
and often chooses wrong.
No ant will enter
no bee another’s hive,
and a rook, atop
a dead oak,
knows which side it’s on,
but a man or woman,
led by liars,
will discuss, calmly,
who should dig the pit
and if it is a better
lesson to slaughter
the neighbors’ babies
first or afterward.
A squirrel burrows deep
in a hollow trunk;
the bear returns
to her darkened cave,
but a man or woman,
gorged on blood,
deep in history, asleep,
and waking, says
peace is a dream.
A rabbit may cower,
but only so long;
the common sparrow
knows the seasons,
but a man or woman
only wants a song, a poem,
a religion to profess
that no one who has known
goodness even once
is ever wholly lost.
Because I was born into ongoing falsehood,
I have had to learn to think in metaphors,
to lash together what could be found on
each small island of that barren archipelago,
to learn what would float, to find what would
carry me. It is only when I am tired I pity the
various people I have been or, worse, deny them.
I have not met anyone who is entirely who
he thinks he is, nor people anywhere so strange
they did not, somehow, move me. When death comes
I have left instructions for my friends to put me
back in the thesaurus with my ancestors.
Hoffman's poems tap into moments when civilization dissolves, not superficially, but at its emotional roots. Simply reading this book becomes an engaged, passionate experience. Time and again through the poet's weary irony comes the bite of life. He makes the world seem, in the words of Wislawa Szymborska, whom he quotes: "just a room away." - Molly Peacock
Hoffman is the poet traveling our nightmare of now, our descent into a lack of love for one another, but along the way he finds etchings of hope on the walls amid all the signs of a falling away from a center that has forgotten how to hold. - Afaa Michael Weaver
Poetry should be beautiful and dangerous, unforgettable, transformational, meaningful across academic and social borders. This is. - Linda McCarriston
Hoffman is a rarity among American poets; his premise is dialogic, his canvas vast, his stance self-questioning. This new book is breakthrough work; poetry of hard-earned grounding, profound integrity, and scalding, visionary intensity. - D. Nurkse
Friday, August 24, 2007
I have wanted for some time to bring the attention of my students and colleagues to the well-documented fact that powerful political forces use the wealth at their disposal to shape our aesthetics. The trouble is that when one begins to speak at a forum or in a classroom about this, especially when you say CIA in the same breath with painting and poetry, you meet with eye-rolling and often ridicule. "What are you, a conspiracy theorist?" Well, there's no theory about it. It's all been well-documented in Frances Stonor Saunders exhaustively researched The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts & Letters, first published in England by Granta Books under the far better title: Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.
In gathering up some reviews to post here, I came across Lyle Daggett's response to the book over at his blog A Burning Patience, so why not start there (http://aburningpatience.blogspot.com/2007/06/my-computer-is-back.html) and then have a look below at my gathering of reviews.
But my question is this: Does anyone really think that this clandestine funding and shaping of the artistic culture to political ends has ceased? In the era of The Military Commissions Act and the Patriot Act?
We need to ask ourselves where our aesthetic standards come from. How do we as writers and artists decide what is worthwhile doing? Are we thinking for ourselves, or are we just delivering product because we have intuited, via our ambitions, what "the market," skewed by political agendas, will reward?
Here is a good synopsis and discussion of the book by James Petras, followed by reviews from a variety of political points of view:
The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited
Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War
(London: Granta Books), £20.
This book provides a detailed account of the ways in which the CIA penetrated and influenced a vast array of cultural organizations, through its front groups and via friendly philanthropic organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The author, Frances Stonor Saunders, details how and why the CIA ran cultural congresses, mounted exhibits, and organized concerts. The CIA also published and translated well-known authors who toed the Washington line, sponsored abstract art to counteract art with any social content and, throughout the world, subsidized journals that criticized Marxism, communism, and revolutionary politics and apologized for, or ignored, violent and destructive imperialist U.S. policies. The CIA was able to harness some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West in service of these policies, to the extent that some intellectuals were directly on the CIA payroll. Many were knowingly involved with CIA "projects," and others drifted in and out of its orbit, claiming ignorance of the CIA connection after their CIA sponsors were publicly exposed during the late 1960s and the Vietnam war, after the turn of the political tide to the left.
U.S. and European anticommunist publications receiving direct or indirect funding included Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, New Leader, Encounter and many others. Among the intellectuals who were funded and promoted by the CIA were Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and numerous others in the United States and Europe. In Europe, the CIA was particularly interested in and promoted the "Democratic Left" and ex-leftists, including Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Anthony Crosland, Michael Josselson, and George Orwell.
The CIA, under the prodding of Sidney Hook and Melvin Lasky, was instrumental in funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a kind of cultural NATO that grouped together all sorts of "anti-Stalinist" leftists and rightists. They were completely free to defend Western cultural and political values, attack "Stalinist totalitarianism" and to tiptoe gently around U.S. racism and imperialism. Occasionally, a piece marginally critical of U.S. mass society was printed in the CIA-subsidized journals.
What was particularly bizarre about this collection of CIA-funded intellectuals was not only their political partisanship, but their pretense that they were disinterested seekers of truth, iconoclastic humanists, free-spirited intellectuals, or artists for art's sake, who counterposed themselves to the corrupted "committed" house "hacks" of the Stalinist apparatus.
It is impossible to believe their claims of ignorance of CIA ties. How could they ignore the absence in the journals of any basic criticism of the numerous lynchings throughout the southern United States during the whole period? How could they ignore the absence, during their cultural congresses, of criticism of U.S. imperialist intervention in Guatemala, Iran, Greece, and Korea that led to millions of deaths? How could they ignore the gross apologies of every imperialist crime of their day in the journals in which they wrote? They were all soldiers: some glib, vitriolic, crude, and polemical, like Hook and Lasky; others elegant essayists like Stephen Spender or self-righteous informers like George Orwell. Saunders portrays the WASP Ivy League elite at the CIA holding the strings, and the vitriolic Jewish ex-leftists snarling at leftist dissidents. When the truth came out in the late 1960s and New York, Paris, and London "intellectuals" feigned indignation at having been used, the CIA retaliated. Tom Braden, who directed the International Organizations Branch of the CIA, blew their cover by detailing how they all had to have known who paid their salaries and stipends (397-404).
According to Braden, the CIA financed their "literary froth," as CIA hardliner Cord Meyer called the anti-Stalinist intellectual exercises of Hook, Kristol, and Lasky. Regarding the most prestigious and best-known publications of the self-styled "Democratic Left" (Encounter, New Leader, Partisan Review), Braden wrote that the money for them came from the CIA and that "an agent became the editor of Encounter" (398). By 1953, Braden wrote, "we were operating or influencing international organizations in every field" (398).
Saunders' book provides useful information about several important questions regarding the ways in which CIA intellectual operatives defended U.S. imperialist interests on cultural fronts. It also initiates an important discussion of the long-term consequences of the ideological and artistic positions defended by CIA intellectuals.
Saunders refutes the claims (made by Hook, Kristol, and Lasky) that the CIA and its friendly foundations provided aid with no strings attached. She demonstrates that "the individuals and institutions subsidized by the CIA were expected to perform as part ... of a propaganda war." The most effective propaganda was defined by the CIA as the kind where "the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own." While the CIA allowed their assets on the "Democratic Left" to prattle occasionally about social reform, it was the "anti-Stalinist" polemics and literary diatribes against Western Marxists and Soviet writers and artists that they were most interested in, funded most generously, and promoted with the greatest visibility. Braden referred to this as the "convergence" between the CIA and the European "Democratic Left" in the fight against communism. The collaboration between the "Democratic Left" and the CIA included strike-breaking in France, informing on Stalinists (Orwell and Hook), and covert smear campaigns to prevent leftist artists from receiving recognition (including Pablo Neruda's bid for a Nobel Prize in 1964 ).
The CIA, as the arm of the U.S. government most concerned with fighting the cultural Cold War, focused on Europe in the period immediately following the Second World War. Having experienced almost two decades of capitalist war, depression, and postwar occupation, the overwhelming majority of European intellectuals and trade unionists were anti-capitalist and particularly critical of the hegemonic pretensions of the United States. To counter the appeal of communism and the growth of the European Communist Parties (particularly in France and Italy), the CIA devised a two-tier program. On the one hand, as Saunders argues, certain European authors were promoted as part of an explicitly "anticommunist program." The CIA cultural commissar's criteria for "suitable texts" included "whatever critiques of Soviet foreign policy and Communism as a form of government we find to be objective (sic) and convincingly written and timely." The CIA was especially keen on publishing disillusioned ex-communists like Silone, Koestler, and Gide. The CIA promoted anticommunist writers by funding lavish conferences in Paris, Berlin, and Bellagio (overlooking Lake Como), where objective social scientists and philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, Daniel Bell, and Czeslow Milosz preached their values (and the virtues of Western freedom and intellectual independence, within the anticommunist and pro-Washington parameters defined by their CIA paymasters). None of these prestigious intellectuals dared to raise any doubts or questions regarding U.S. support of the mass killing in colonial Indochina and Algeria, the witch hunt of U.S. intellectuals or the paramilitary (Ku Klux Klan) lynchings in the southern United States. Such banal concerns would only "play into the hands of the Communists," according to Sidney Hook, Melvin Lasky, and the Partisan Review crowd, who eagerly sought funds for their quasi-bankrupt literary operation. Many of the so-called prestigious anticommunist literary and political journals would long have gone out of business were it not for CIA subsidies, which bought thousands of copies that it later distributed free.
The second cultural track on which the CIA operated was much more subtle. Here, it promoted symphonies, art exhibits, ballet, theater groups, and well-known jazz and opera performers with the explicit aim of neutralizing anti-imperialist sentiment in Europe and creating an appreciation of U.S. culture and government. The idea behind this policy was to showcase U.S. culture, in order to gain cultural hegemony to support its military-economic empire. The CIA was especially keen on sending black artists to Europe — particularly singers (like Marion Anderson), writers, and musicians (such as Louis Armstrong) — to neutralize European hostility toward Washington's racist domestic policies. If black intellectuals didn't stick to the U.S. artistic script and wandered into explicit criticism, they were banished from the list, as was the case with writer Richard Wright.
The degree of CIA political control over the intellectual agenda of these seemingly nonpolitical artistic activities was clearly demonstrated by the reaction of the editors of Encounter (Lasky and Kristol, among others) with regard to an article submitted by Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald, a maverick anarchist intellectual, was a long-time collaborator with the CIA-run Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter. In 1958, he wrote an article for Encounter entitled "America America," in which he expressed his revulsion for U.S. mass culture, its crude materialism, and lack of civility. It was a rebuttal of the American values that were prime propaganda material in the CIA's and Encounter's cultural war against communism. MacDonald's attack of the "decadent American imperium" was too much for the CIA and its intellectual operatives in Encounter. As Braden, in his guidelines to the intellectuals, stated "organizations receiving CIA funds should not be required to support every aspect of U.S. policy," but invariably there was a cut-off point — particularly where U.S. foreign policy was concerned (314). Despite the fact that MacDonald was a former editor of Encounter, the article was rejected. The pious claims of Cold War writers like Nicola Chiaromonte, writing in the second issue of Encounter, that "[t]he duty that no intellectual can shirk without degrading himself is the duty to expose fictions and to refuse to call 'useful lies,' truths," certainly did not apply to Encounter and its distinguished list of contributors when it came to dealing with the 'useful lies' of the West.
One of the most important and fascinating discussions in Saunders' book is about the fact that CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist (AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content. In promoting AE, the CIA fought off the right-wing in Congress. What the CIA saw in AE was an "anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism" (254). They viewed AE as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to AE as "free enterprise painting.") Many directors at MOMA had longstanding links to the CIA and were more than willing to lend a hand in promoting AE as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Heavily funded exhibits of AE were organized all over Europe; art critics were mobilized, and art magazines churned out articles full of lavish praise. The combined economic resources of MOMA and the CIA-run Fairfield Foundation ensured the collaboration of Europe's most prestigious galleries which, in turn, were able to influence aesthetics across Europe.
AE as "free art" ideology (George Kennan, 272) was used to attack politically committed artists in Europe. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (the CIA front) threw its weight behind abstract painting, over representational or realist aesthetics, in an explicit political act. Commenting on the political role of AE, Saunders points out: "One of the extraordinary features of the role that American painting played in the cultural Cold War is not the fact that it became part of the enterprise, but that a movement which so deliberately declared itself to be apolitical could become so intensely politicized" (275). The CIA associated apolitical artists and art with freedom. This was directed toward neutralizing the artists on the European left. The irony, of course, was that the apolitical posturing was only for left-wing consumption.
Nevertheless, the CIA and its cultural organizations were able to profoundly shape the postwar view of art. Many prestigious writers, poets, artists, and musicians proclaimed their independence from politics and declared their belief in art for art's sake. The dogma of the free artist or intellectual, as someone disconnected from political engagement, gained ascendancy and is pervasive to this day.
While Saunders has presented a superbly detailed account of the links between the CIA and Western artists and intellectuals, she leaves unexplored the structural reasons for the necessity of CIA deception and control over dissent. Her discussion is framed largely in the context of political competition and conflict with Soviet communism. There is no serious attempt to locate the CIA's cultural Cold War in the context of class warfare, indigenous third world revolutions, and independent Marxist challenges to U.S. imperialist economic domination. This leads Saunders to selectively praise some CIA ventures at the expense of others, some operatives over others. Rather than see the CIA's cultural war as part of an imperialist system, Saunders tends to be critical of its deceptive and distinct reactive nature. The U.S.-NATO cultural conquest of Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR should quickly dispel any notion that the cultural war was a defensive action.
The very origins of the cultural Cold War were rooted in class warfare. Early on, the CIA and its U.S. AFL-CIO operatives Irving Brown and Jay Lovestone (ex-communists) poured millions of dollars into subverting militant trade unions and breaking strikes through the funding of social democratic unions (94). The Congress for Cultural Freedom and its enlightened intellectuals were funded by the same CIA operatives who hired Marseilles gangsters to break the dockworkers' strikes in 1948.
After the Second World War, with the discrediting in Western Europe of the old right (compromised by its links to the fascists and a weak capitalist system), the CIA realized that, in order to undermine the anti-NATO trade unionists and intellectuals, it needed to find (or invent) a Democratic Left to engage in ideological warfare. A special sector of the CIA was set up to circumvent right-wing Congressional objections. The Democratic Left was essentially used to combat the radical left and to provide an ideological gloss on U.S. hegemony in Europe. At no point were the ideological pugilists of the democratic left in any position to shape the strategic policies and interests of the United States. Their job was not to question or demand, but to serve the empire in the name of "Western democratic values." Only when massive opposition to the Vietnam War surfaced in the United States and Europe, and their CIA covers were blown, did many of the CIA-promoted and -financed intellectuals jump ship and begin to criticize U.S. foreign policy. For example, after spending most of his career on the CIA payroll, Stephen Spender became a critic of U.S. Vietnam policy, as did some of the editors of Partisan Review. They all claimed innocence, but few critics believed that a love affair with so many journals and convention junkets, so long and deeply involved, could transpire without some degree of knowledge.
The CIA's involvement in the cultural life of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere had important long-term consequences. Many intellectuals were rewarded with prestige, public recognition, and research funds precisely for operating within the ideological blinders set by the Agency. Some of the biggest names in philosophy, political ethics, sociology, and art, who gained visibility from CIA-funded conferences and journals, went on to establish the norms and standards for promotion of the new generation, based on the political parameters established by the CIA. Not merit nor skill, but politics — the Washington line — defined "truth" and "excellence" and future chairs in prestigious academic settings, foundations, and museums.
The U.S. and European Democratic Left's anti-Stalinist rhetorical ejaculations, and their proclamations of faith in democratic values and freedom, were a useful ideological cover for the heinous crimes of the West. Once again, in NATO's recent war against Yugoslavia, many Democratic Left intellectuals have lined up with the West and the KLA in its bloody purge of tens of thousands of Serbs and the murder of scores of innocent civilians. If anti-Stalinism was the opium of the Democratic Left during the Cold War, human rights interventionism has the same narcotizing effect today, and deludes contemporary Democratic Leftists.
The CIA's cultural campaigns created the prototype for today's seemingly apolitical intellectuals, academics, and artists who are divorced from popular struggles and whose worth rises with their distance from the working classes and their proximity to prestigious foundations. The CIA role model of the successful professional is the ideological gatekeeper, excluding critical intellectuals who write about class struggle, class exploitation and U.S. imperialism, "ideological" not "objective" categories, or so they are told.
The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA's Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today's intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship. Today at the opera, theater, and art galleries, as well as in the professional meetings of academics, the Cold War values of the CIA are visible and pervasive: who dares to undress the emperor?
Thursday, August 23, 2007
After the recent suicides of poets Sarah Hannah and Liam Rector, I post this poem, by Brazil's Carlos Drummond de Andrade, with some urgency. And deep sadness.
DON'T KILL YOURSELF
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
Carlos, keep calm, love
is what you're seeing now:
today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss,
day after tomorrow's Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen
It's useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself!
Keep all of yourself for the nuptials
coming nobody knows when,
that is, if they ever come.
Love, Carlos, tellurian, spent the night with you,
and now your insides are raising an ineffable racket,
saints crossing themselves,
ads for a better soap,
a racket of which nobody
knows the why or wherefore.
In the meantime you go on your way
You're the palm tree, you're the cry
nobody heard in the theatre
and all the lights went out.
Love in the dark, no, love
in the daylight, is always sad,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.
(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)
Saturday, August 11, 2007
A while back I bookmarked this essay by Kathy Lou Schultz, but when I returned to it the URL had expired. I have found it elsehwere, however, and feature it here. It seems to me to be an authentic and honest grappling with the intractable issue of class as it pertains to writing, writers, MFA programs, and identity.
Here is Kathy Lou Schultz's web site:
And here is the essay:
"Talking Trash, Talking Class: What's a Working Class Poetic, and Where Would I Find One?"
by Kathy Lou Schultz
for my grandmothers: Donna Gene (Ewing) Manthey and
Christina Katherina (Sanders) Schultz
I've spent years trying to reconcile being a poet with being working class. Yet, walking home from work one day it occurred to me, such a reconciliation is not only improbable, it is also undesirable. My language comes out of, indeed is exalted toward, the space created where these two identities refuse to meld inside of me. In that messy, dangerous space the possibilities of language are expanded.
What does a "working class poem" look like?
How does it sound?
How does it behave?
What if I'm "too intellectual," "too confident," "too experimental," "too fragmented"?
Growing up working class has given me skills, perspectives, and knowledge which are a part of every decision I make. Growing up working class taught me how to survive. Growing up working class is part of my very breathing. How are "poetries of identity" created? How are they made normative? When I say "working class poem," "working class writer," what do you hear? Tillie Olson, Kevin Magee, Mike Amnasan, Karen Brodine, Rebecca Harding Davis, Meridel Le Sueur, Agnes Smedley, Dorothy Allison, Mike Davis, Carolyn Kay Steedman, Barbara Smith.
And who? Who does not survive in our language?
Anxiety is a sticky substance infused with fear. Dollar for dollar. Or, for instance, poverty. My own collusion in bourgeois appearances bleeding me dry. The need to be seen or recognized outweighing other emotional vaunts.
This is the most difficult essay I have ever not written, for as much time as I spend writing it, I spend more not writing it, carrying it around knotted and unruly.
A discourse around class and poetics is lacking, if not invisible. While it is now possible to identify a trajectory of experimental women's writing, to inhabit a vocabulary of gender and sexuality, references to class often remain just that: mere codes. Several problematic issues arise both in the writing of, and writing about, what we might call "working class poetry."
First, the drive to create "poetries of identity" (a phrase I've been using for some time) tends to solidify normalizing tendencies in terms of form, style, and content, i.e. does a poem have to be narrative, "I"-based and "about" work in order to be considered "working class"? Furthermore, drawing a straight line between one's identity and one's poetics is problematic at best and confuses the biographical information about the poet with poetic works that genuinely seek to explore, unseat, complicate subjectivity.
The obvious point to be made is that identities are infinitely mediated and complex; coming from a particular class, race, gender is not--and should not be--the map through which one can trace a trajectory toward a particular type of poetic expression. That said, I still consider Lorine Niedecker (along with being a great Modernist, experimental, American, woman writer) to be a great working class writer. It is part of providing myself with a history.
Dear Hilda, Dear Wallace, Dear Michael, Dear Frederick
Dear Marianne, Dear ball and stick, Dear K, Dear K, Dear K, Dear K
A language of provisional objects
A language of hunger
The head of the hammer
flying off and cracking
Or a spade unable to overturn
the solid earth
Does the word "proletarian" refer?
See now, a figure described as my grandmother crossing a room
Replace "I" with "salt in a bag"
In the face of my parents' illiteracy
all the ravages
My anxieties race through me at a difference pace, clutching at my lungs, my throat, making it difficult to swallow or breathe. My childhood anxiety wasn't made up of monsters in the closet, or fear of the dark. My anxiety was tied to something which my parents could only haltingly save me from, something which they toiled vigorously to save the entire family from: poverty. The threat of falling into poverty, losing one's health, losing a job, that looms over the working class creates particular anxieties, mental health issues, and survival strategies. I learned to take care of myself early because it was required. During much of my childhood, my parents each worked two jobs, and I was often alone. Now in her fifties, my mother faces health problems which I can only attribute to years of overwork.
I took care of myself. I struggled. I got angry. Though the idea that I would go to college was with me from a young age, there was no such thing as a "college fund" to pay for it; my parents had no money to sent me to college. If I were to go, I had to figure out the way myself. And I did. I became an incredible over-achiever. I racked up academic awards, anxiety, and rage. I knew I must always do more, be better, to prove myself worthy. I took nothing for granted.
Education is like a religion for the working class. It's the "way out." Of course, at the present moment, that both is and isn't true. This news has reached even popular journals, such as Spin, which reports in its October 1997 article on "Sucker Ph.D.'s":
More than one third of all new history Ph.D.s will never find full-time teaching work, according to the American Historical Associations' own newsletter, paltry numbers given the mammoth amount of time you have to invest to discover your fate. Across all fields, 40,000-plus students will receive their doctorates this year. Few have illusions about what awaits them: a handful of good jobs, each sought by hundreds of applicants; university presses less and less willing to publish the academic books needed to gain tenure; protracted separations from loved ones. Grad school, an option nearly every halfway idealistic college student contemplates, has become an invitation to purgatory.
This brings me to the inevitable discussion of MFA programs. Camille Roy, in a recent discussion on the SUNY Buffalo Poetics ListServ interestingly points out that when she first came to the Bay Area, there were resources available in the community for writers to learn more about their craft, such as the free workshops offered by Bob Gluck through Small Press Traffic. Roy attributes the current institutionalization of such resources into university MFA programs, where people must pay for access, to dwindling funding for the arts.
This is a very difficult situation, and while it is true that few poor and working class people will apply themselves to a graduate program, such as an MFA, which virtually guarantees that they will not find a job, some institutions such as San Francisco State University are historically very working class. Like other working class folks, I worked full-time while completing my MFA in poetry at State. It took me five years to complete the three-year program, and during that time I endured a level of exhaustion and stress which had adverse effects on my health. (I was almost hospitalized in the middle of it in 1993.)
In addition, it must be pointed out that not everyone enters such a program with equal amounts of privilege, and completing a degree, while providing for the acquisition of particular cultural capital, is not a great leveler. Working class people are often worse off when graduating because of the massive student loan debts they carry with them.
So why did I do it? Because my working class heritage has imbued me with a stubbornness which allows one small part of myself to refuse to accept that I am not allowed to have what other people have just because they come from wealthy families and I don't. I wanted to learn. I wanted an intellectual community. I wanted a writing community. Are MFA programs the best answer to all of that? Certainly not, but I did gain some of what I wanted in all three of those areas. And I existed at State, much more than I did as an undergraduate at Columbia University and Oberlin College, because I could look around and see my experience reflected, and not feel so much the horrible grating of isolation.
the passage of place
a geometric development
heretofore opposed to wake
pronouncements and sedentary acts
the startling possibility of collectivity
when money has everything and nothing to do with it
"I'm just trying to get us both on the same page"
People assume they know who I am because I am white, because I am "educated," because I am reasonably articulate. But my efforts to be "good enough" have been too successful: they have helped to erase who I am. I pass so well, but you look through me, and what you do not see says so much.
My own writing comes out of those points of pressure and contradiction. The education which introduced me to Anne-Marie Albiach, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Blanchot, post-structuralism, and experimental narrative, also ensures that I am a stranger to my own family. I now speak at least two languages. I cannot forget, or erase, one in favor of the other in the difficult act of writing. Amphibious, we live in both worlds, but belong to neither.
Writing which brings to bear the full force of one's psychic, material (body and word) power is not sweet or delicate. It is not "safe." To fully inhabit the world of working class subjectivity in a poem requires that I withstand an incredible emotional pressure. I scratch away at the codes or placeholders which seem to want to denote class, and try to find what lies underneath. In the face of silence, only my stutter.
While literacy is certainly an issue when discussing the "accessibility" of innovative works, I have sat with readers with high school educations and Ph.D.'s alike while they encountered similar challenges and delights in unlayering a poem. I refuse to assume or presume my audience–any audience–during my writing process. To assume that the "true" working class poem is only a narrative exposition of working class "experience," is to buy into normative reading patterns established by post-WWII academic poetries in the U.S. This assumption precludes the full possibilities of language, isolating working class poets to a particular kind of expressionism. It would be difficult to find a parallel prescription placed on the depiction of class in other art forms.
The difficulty in discussing class and poetics reflects the larger obfuscation of class within American culture. While Labor is becoming more visible as we near the end of the 20th century, and the intelligentsia faces a job market of dwindling opportunity and wealth is concentrated in the hands of an increasing few, the myth of a "classless" society persists. (Have you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps lately?)
Too often, class is conflated with race in a fuzzy-headed analysis that fails to account for the conflicting privileges/oppressions of race and class. I continue to believe that it is extremely valuable for white working class people to speak out about their experiences and interrogate what it means to live simultaneously not only with racial privilege, but also under economic oppression. Exploring these kinds of contradictions is the only way that theory will catch up with praxis.
As someone both white and working class, I have often been painfully invisible, particularly in academic environments where it was much more comfortable for white academics to assume that I was "like them" despite evidence to the contrary. One woman at Oberlin repeatedly insisted to my face, "You're like me? your parents have money." The fact that I was not supported financially by my parents was a foreign concept to her, and far too many others. I had to insist on my own existence, insist on the right to my own experience, and avoid being put in the position of taking care of their feelings of guilt.
Writing is thievery, as in stealing time. I will forever be envious of those who are afforded the material conditions and privilege in which to write. Those whose parents paid for them to go to college. Those who grew up blissfully unaware of financial struggle. Those whose families are able to provide them with a crucial safety net in times of crisis. These people have the things that I always wanted, but will never have. I can't go back and change that. I can only fight to harness my fear and rage in a way which returns me to the page in a productive way as a poet who believes that issues of power and privilege are of vital importance.
This essay first appeared in tripwire: a journal of poetics, no. 1, Spring, 1998.
Kathy Lou Schultz was born in Burke, South Dakota and grew up in central Nebraska. She left Nebraska at age 18 to attend Columbia University in New York. She finished her B.A. at Oberlin College and earned an MFA at San Francisco State University. Her publications include Genealogy (a+bend press, 1999) and Re dress (San Francisco State University, 1994). She is a founding editor of Lipstick Eleven and Duck Press.
Thursday, August 02, 2007
"Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations. Words like "freedom," "justice," "democracy" are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply."