Arts & Literature

The State of Literary Art III: Writers’ Conferences? Meh…

Writers’ conferences , as you may have long suspected, have a pecking order – and most of us are at the bottom…

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

(For previous essays in this series, look here and here.)

This week’s look at Joe David Bellamy’s book of essays on the state of American Writing (by which you by now have gathered he’s talking mainly about litfic), Literary Luxuries, takes a look at that interesting phenomenon of the literary world that has evolved since the advent of the brave new world of teaching creative writers, the writers’ conference. There are a couple of essays to discuss for this topic, so we’ll take a look at both. We’ll also be looking at what writers’ conferences really are – and whether they make a difference for the rank and file writer.

Bellamy’s essays take two almost opposing views of the writers’ conference. In the first essay, “The Bread Loaf Experience,” his tone is tongue in cheek bordering at times on caustic as he describes (based on his own experience, of course) what attending perhaps the most renowned of writers’ conferences is like. Bread Loaf is attended not just by the great and renowned but by many, many aspiring writers who hope by attending sessions to catch the attention of a powerful figure whether that person be another writer, a literary agent, or an editor from an important publishing house. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

John McPhee and Immersion Journalism: The Survival of the Bark Canoe

John McPhee’s greatness lies in his ability to make the real world and its inhabitants as interesting as if they were fictional…

The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee (image courtesy Goodreads)

Here’s one from the 2014 reading list that I’ve been looking forward to reading. I have been a John McPhee fan since I was an undergraduate. My composition class “reader” had an excerpt from Oranges about fighting a frost in Florida with smudge pots that hooked me on his approach to nonfiction.  (Some of the more hoary of you working through this piece may remember those books called readers. They were books of essays by great nonfiction writers assigned in 1st year composition classes to provide “writing models” to callow 18 years olds in the quaintly delusional hope that some of the greatness of an E.B. White, Lewis Thomas or John McPhee would enter our heads and come out through our pens back in those halcyon days when we rode dinosaurs to classes.)  The use of these has been widely discontinued – an act, I suspect, owing as much to the despair writing teachers feel of ever encountering a writer who could, to borrow a metaphor from Rogers Hornsby, at least “carry the bat” of a White or Thomas – or McPhee – as to changes in the pedagogical approach to teaching writing.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe is a brief book, only 114 pages. That is often the case with McPhee; he does not write long pieces because he actually writes pieces suitable for inclusion in magazines. The magazine he is most closely associated with is the same one that E. B. White and his contemporary James Thurber helped make famous: The New Yorker.  Given that magazine’s history for stellar writing – and occasionally writing that manages to be pompous and precious at once – one can easily jump to the conclusion that McPhee has that ironic, wittily condescending style many associate with the nation’s premier “high brow” mass market magazine (though these folks might disagree with that assessment). Nothing could be further from the truth – and therein lies McPhee’s greatness. His ability to immerse himself in the stories he explores and bring to life their characters draws readers along as if they were reading fiction. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art II: of literary magazines…

One of the things an aspiring writer learns quickly is that literary magazine editors are a quirky lot…but that there are lots of literary magazines these days….

cover, Fiction International (image courtesy Fiction International website)

(For previous essays in this series, look here.)

My second essay on Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the literary community at the end of the last century, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, is Bellamy’s essay on his time as a literary magazine editor (and founder).

The essay is really about two issues – issues that relate to the politics behind literary fiction and its outlets and the politics surrounding the relationship between creative writing programs and English departments. Bellamy’s essay is worth a look because it reminds us of the evolution of English departments, the rise of creative writing programs, the role of “little” or literary magazines in the move of serious literary work (both fiction and poetry) out of the mainstream, and how the Internet has allowed a renaissance of sorts for literary magazines many of whom were almost done in by publishing costs before the Web came along to save them (and allow the rise of many new journals including the one here at Scholars and Rogues). Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Diner” by Mark Sumioka

There on the coffee table was the colorful stack of lottery Scratcher tickets.  I leaned forward at the edge of the couch, the adrenaline from the gamble swirling through me.  I had coin-scraped their surfaces in jagged angles, though some Scratchers, the ones at the beginning of the session, had been scored in perfect shapes – ovals, circles, or rectangles.

That was when the fever had just begun.

Now I saw the pile of lottery tickets and their frayed bits of grey-black residue and was aching for more.  It filled me with memories and sadness.  It went beyond money and entertainment. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain: War and Peace for middlebrows…

Frazier’s historical novel was a great success even though it is rather indifferent both as history and as a novel…

Rivers Parting by Shirley Barker (image courtesy Amazon)

A confessions of sorts.

I have always been something of a fan of the historical novel. My interest began probably with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in my early teens and has been primed occasionally over the years with the occasionally discovered tasteful or tasteless gem (many courtesy of my late and dearly missed Aunt Barbara). Through her taste for middlebrow lit I wound up reading (without parental consent, of course) Forever Amber which led me to Moll Flanders and then to A Journal of the Plague Year (I’d read Robinson Crusoe years earlier as a child).  So in a weird way, the same woman who’d schooled me in serious lit by constantly forcing me to take another volume from the Harvard Classics each time I visited her (she sometimes had me read from the works to her after I’d finished mowing her yard and was enjoying a glass of lemonade or iced tea) also, in passing along her old book club selections to my mother gave me an introduction into what Middle America found fascinating reading from the 1950s through 1970s. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Moments That Matter” by James Gardner

It was just after seven.  Dianna Reynolds sat in the front seat of a faded green Mercury Sable with half a bottle of vodka held tightly between her legs.  She lit a cigarette with a pack of matches off the dashboard and blew smoke out the open window.  Randy Whitehead leaned against the hood of the car eating spaghetti and meatballs out of a can with a plastic fork.  The gentle sound of the river and a smell of fish filled the evening air.  Randy Whitehead finished the spaghetti and threw the empty can into the trees.  He licked off the plastic fork and put it in his shirt pocket.  Then he walked to the side of the car and stuck his head inside.

“Give me a beer, Dianna,” he said holding out his hand.  She reached into a red ice chest and handed him a can.

“Here,” she said indifferently.

Randy Whitehead glanced at the bottle of vodka.  “You better slow down on that shit if you want it to last you.” Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…

 

Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Anti-” by Shae Krispinsky

Strength of will got me to Brooklyn on a drizzling Saturday afternoon. Dreadlocked kids in torn, paint-spattered jeans lugged crates of art supplies, rolls of butcher paper and large blank canvases  through the oilslicked puddles on the sidewalks between their dorm buildings and their parents’ SUVs. Dutifully following behind, parents carried more practical items: lamps, bundles of shiny plastic hangers, extra long sheet sets and grocery sacks full of enough snack crackers and cereal to last several weeks. Traveling light, I had only a large duffel bursting with clothes, some books, my journal and my laptop. Anything to get away from home as quickly as possible.

When my mom called the following Monday, I told her I had found my people, my place, which wasn’t entirely a lie. I felt more at home amongst these tattooed, tortured artists than I ever did in the cultural wasteland of cow-country western Pennsylvania where I grew up, but still, I knew I didn’t belong here. As a writer at an art school, just like at home, I was an outcast. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art I: who is an artist?

American literary fiction over the last 50 years has been, it seems, in a struggle to find an audience…

Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

Another book from the 2014 reading list composed of essays. This one, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millenium, is a collection of essays by writer, writing teacher, and litfic cheerleader Joe David Bellamy. Since this is a book of essays that range over a number of issues confronting the literary community, it seems logical to look at Bellamy’s book in sections. So, as I’ve done with a book of scholarly essays on popular music as protest, I’ll be looking at this work over a number of weeks. This will allow me to share Bellamy’s wide ranging discussions of issues such as  of support for the arts (particularly literature), writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, and styles of literary fiction.

Bellamy has a lot to say about each of these areas (and others) and his opinions are – interesting might be the best word. I agree with some of his assessment of the state of litfic, some of it I would say probably needs updating, and some of it smacks of his personal biases. That last is not necessarily a bad thing – except when he resorts to trying to make literature style an object of political analysis. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “Nut Case” by Samuel Vargo

Nut Case. That’s what we call him.

It fits. He’s crazy. And dangerous.

Don’t get too close to Nut Case, you can hear him ticking – clicking down to another big explosion. And you certainly don’t want to be near him when it occurs.

Nut Case carries a handgun, some small-caliber thingamajig that he keeps in his pocket. It’s a concealed weapon; I guess that’s the “legal” name for it, but actually, its only function is to put holes through people. And even though it’s a small caliber, don’t think it can’t kill someone. It’s ready made for fatalities, alright. Yep, that gun is very well concealed on his person. I don’t know if I actually consider Nut Case a person, though, since I see him more as a monster – but that’s the legal name for the way he carries that gun – `on his person’. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Waiting for Nothing (More): Tom Kromer’s Singular (and Single) Masterpiece

Kromer’s novel of The Great Depression was his only fully achieved work…

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer (image courtesy Goodreads)

I realize I have been remiss.

Despite two updates to my 2014 reading list (see here and here) I have still more books that I’ve added. So once I finish this essay on a rather singular work of literature from The Great Depression, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to write a short piece to still further update my reading list.

But writing about the books themselves is ever so much more enjoyable, so let’s get to that first, shall we?

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer is one of those books that rattles around in the halls of academe periodically as a “lost classic.” I first encountered it in my first full time college teaching job back in 1987 at Salem College. A now “lost and by the wind grieved” colleague, Pete Jordan, asked me if I were familiar with the work. When I told him no, he thrust a copy into my hands and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a book I should know.

I took it home and read it in an evening. (That’s not a prodigious feat – the book is more a novella than a novel and the edition I reread for this essay, a very nice remounting by the University of Georgia Press, logs in at only 130 pages). It’s an alternately engrossing and wrenching narrative based on Kromer’s time as a “stiff” (the term refers to the many hobos who spent their time drifting from town to city across the country looking for work during the depths of the economic crisis in the early 1930’s). Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: The Price of Ignorance by Fred Skolnik

Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world. Continue reading

Opening the asylum

Daffy Duck and Robin Williams will never die, not really…

Robin Williams died yesterday, and when I heard the news I immediately thought of this collection of Daffy Duck toys I keep in an old-fashioned hanging bird cage in my basement. I have kept these toys in this way for years, collecting dust in a dark room, locked away like the picture of Dorian Gray.

It’s like I have collected iconographic bits of my own particular madness and put them in a teeny jail, though I have always thought of it as a shrine to Daffy, my God of Insanity.

Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived': popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: “Exit Wounds” by Travis Slusser

The exit wound is always larger than the entrance. Well, not always- bullets don’t obey rules but in my case this isn’t a bullet we’re talking about. This is tens of thousands of bullets. This is tons of ordnance dropped from the sky and buried along roadsides waiting mute and blind and seething for a convoy to roll past. My wound is a tiny white crescent moon on the web of my right hand. The white crescent of Islam, a symbol more powerful and holy and frightening than anything I could wrap my homogenized and X-Boxed American head around. It was a hot shell casing from the breech of the man’s rifle next to me. A Major assigned to train the Afghan police; he emptied all 7 of his magazines within minutes of the engagement beginning. That’s how I came to be out of the truck and in the midst of the dust and chaos of my first firefight. The Major and our squad leader next to him had gotten trigger-happy and were now calling out for fresh mags. I grabbed a bandolier off the back of the seat in front of me and ducked out the armored door of the humvee, hustling the ammo one truck length ahead to them, “exposing myself repeatedly to intense small-arms fire” as the report would later word so eloquently. I joined these two and gave them some covering fire as they reloaded, popping off about 20 rounds. At this point the searing hot brass landed right in the web of my firing hand and I yelled and shook it violently, dislodging the cursed thing, then went back to shooting up the hillside across the narrow valley. Continue reading

Book-Review

The Dragon Tattoo dilemma: What is good? Bad?

Stieg Larsson’s crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really an examination of moral and ethical ambiguity…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (image courtesyGoodreads)

The next novel from my 2014 reading list is the first in a trilogy (yet again with the trilogies – sheesh) that has swept to great success. The late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a solid enough crime novel, and its foreign setting, for many readers, (it’s set in Sweden, for those who don’t know) is, I’m sure, an element of allure. Add to this the familial, financial/corporate, technological, and journalistic threads that are the material of the novel’s fabric and it’s easy to understand why the novel has been a runaway bestseller.

While I have proclaimed loud and long that I am not much of a genre fan, (unless one considers classic literature a genre – which I suppose it is, though the classification would then come from its historical significance rather than its subject matter – and that, of course, then begs the question “What do we mean by ‘genre’?” – and here I’ll stop since I now begin to sound like Jacques Derrida), if pressed, I will admit to a fondness for mystery/crime fiction. Given the hoopla that’s surrounded these novels, since I’ve promised to stretch myself by reading more genre work (see my comments at the 2014 reading list link), choosing one of these books seemed an obvious decision.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a long book (the English translation clocks in at almost 650 pages). Pacing is sometimes an issue, and Larsson has an annoying tendency to offer longish explanations about various areas of Swedish life, economics, and  jurisprudence that are sometimes helpful but at other times simply drag down what was a crisp pace in the narrative. He’s not as annoying as, say, Tom Clancy or James Michener about this “need to explain,” but it does make reading the novel a chore from time to time. I am not sure if this is the translator’s or Larsson’s fault. My estimation, though, based on the regularity with which this behavior annoyed me, is that Larsson must be held accountable. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Waver” by David Osmundsen

“ERES UNA PUTA!” Alejandro Judaz waved the gun like a child waving a flag at a parade. Marela would’ve laughed at the melodramatics on the TV screen if Miguel hadn’t been shrieking so loudly. Why did his grandmother have to be at jury duty today?

“SHUT UP BRAGUILLAS!”

Marela slammed the front door of the two-family house behind her and marched into the frigid February air. She fastened her pink scarf around her head and across her lips. She heaved a five second breath into the cloth, which caught her warm breath and kept her lower face from freezing. Her fingers clenched in and out, in and out, keeping her blood flowing through her hands.

Marela didn’t mind cold weather. She made sure to mention this when she applied to be a waver at the Freedom Tax office three weeks before. Sharon, the woman who ran the office, responded with “It’s a good thing you don’t mind the cold, especially with this cold snap they’re saying is coming on the Weather Channel.”

When Sharon finished looking over the application, she glanced Marela up and down. “OK, so if you’ll just come over here, so you can see the screen…” Marela walked to the other side of the desk. “I’m just going to show you a little video of what a waver does.” When Sharon pressed the “Play” button, she unleashed a blaring beat proclaiming “I’m sexy and I know it” and spectacular sights of hyper people in turquoise cloths and foam Lady Liberty Crowns spinning “Get $50 Now!” signs and doing cartwheels, backflips, kick-lines, and… was that waver twerking? Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Mixed Tapes – The Use of Technology as Social Protest…

Mix tape culture had to start somewhere, right? Is it possible it started as protest?

Remember these? (image courtesy Wikimedia)

One of the elements in current discussion of how technology is shaping society that is currently damned near worn out and pretty regularly debunked is the idea that the Internet gives artists some significant weapon that they can use against the hegemony of cultural gatekeepers who prevent deserving (in this case one should probably think of “deserving” as a weasel word) artists from receiving their due accolades as the geniuses they clearly are. While it’s true that the occasional genius like Psy or Grumpy Cat rises from the deluge of dreck to show us the way forward, the Internet has mostly been unkind to “content creators” – as artists are known in tech jargon. The people who control the technology have been those who have profited – often wildly – from the frenzy of artistic activity littering the Web.

Hegemony strikes again, it seems. As Mr. Townshend observed: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss….

The protest against cultural hegemony, in the case of this week’s essay from The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, dates to before the rise of the Internet. In a different take on the idea of protest, author Kathleen McConnell explores the rise and evolution of DIY music culture in the Pacific Northwest in her article “The handmade tale: cassette-tapes, authorship, and the privatization of the Pacific Northwest music scene.” While previous discussion in this series have focused on specific musical genres (metal and Goth)and their elements of protest (which both use technologies as tools of protest), this week’s essay looks directly at how a particular technology (cassette recording and reproduction devices) affected the rise of a music scene. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Other Side of Things” by Mark Sumioka

I’d hit it fairly hard the previous night.  My eyes were pinched, and the damn headache was piercing a tiny hole at the back of my skull.  The pain toyed with me, back and forth, disappearing a few minutes but then returning sharply.  I was exhausted.  Normally, I wouldn’t leave the apartment before noon.  At most I would sit on my front deck behind thick sunglasses, a drink in hand, watching passersby down at street level.

But today was my birthday, and my brother Teddy’s too.

My mother and brother had goaded me until I agreed to meet them for breakfast.  They were first to arrive at the diner.  They were tight as mother and son. And I was the outcast, though I didn’t mind.  They were always talking deeply to one another, prodding and interrogating, and then listening and empathizing.  They loved their white wine.  They loved emotional baggage. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “A Vision of Venus” by Iftekhar Sayeed

“Grave the vision Venus sends” – W.H.Auden

 

It was a fateful decision we took on that morning to make love. I slumped in ecstasy on her body, her chiffon magenta saree raised above for my convenience. But something wasn’t right.

“You didn’t come?”

She opened her shaded lids and smiled. “It’s all right. I’ll be late, Zafar.”

“Give me a minute.” I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Shanta unsatisfied. I slid down her gleaming white thighs, and buried my tongue deep inside. It began to fork up and down. And soon she was bucking under me and moaning. The final moment arrived. Her breasts were heaving through her brocade blouse and her mascara was tinged with tears. She smiled, contented.

Shanta looked at her watch and her eyes widened with horror.

“O my God, I’ll be late! Get off me!”

She pulled on her undies, and rearranged her chiffon saree, her black and brown hair, her smoky eyes. She blew me a kiss through her magenta lipstick, and left the flat, clattering on her heels.

I loved lying naked on the bed after making love. I loved the sunlight on my body through the damask curtains; the chatter of magpies outside the window; the odour of her perfume pervading the bedroom; the taste of her lips or vagina….

It had been a perilous quickie. Obviously, she had been tense. She was on her way to a civil service viva voce. She wanted to be a public servant and give up her job as a journalist. She wanted to make a difference to the lawlessness in her country. I had remonstrated with her at first, but then decided to let her find out for herself. I chuckled…and must have fallen asleep. Continue reading