Rely, Rely

by JP Grasser

Poets are, by nature, unreliable. Or so goes the stereotypic vision: we’re a clattering of penniless loafers. Mercurial, if winsome. Far from the pragmatists professionalization might’ve whittled us into, we’re more interested in taking stock than in taking stock options. We’ve got our heads in the clouds and cotton balls in our ears.

(Note: I do have my head in the clouds right now. Specifically, clouds of smog—the winter inversion in Salt Lake City—the worst air quality in the country. On bad air days, my friend wears a gasmask to ride his bicycle.)

In the weeks immediately following the election, I thought there was a great irony to the road that had led us here. How ironic, I thought, that embracing radical subjectivity, self-reliance, & individualism—you can be anything when you grow up (even a poet!)—had seemingly spiraled into a dark state of post-truth. How ironic, I thought, that the same worldview that nurtured my creativity likewise served as catalyst to the alt-fact landscape, a place where the anecdotal supersedes the verifiable, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid, if unequally true.

On the first day of class, I often ask my creative writing students to list their favorite novels. Invariably, someone throws out The Great Gatsby. Invariably, I ask if they can differentiate reliable narrator from unreliable narrator. Same difference, they say.

My mentor in college, Wyatt Prunty, once relayed the phrase “the mutual dependency of apparent opposites” with regards to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” What happens, he asked, if we are unreliable narrators of our own lives? What’s true fiction, false truth? This is, of course, always the case; it’s not exactly breaking news that memory distorts reality. Same difference?

(Note: after some quick digging, I’ve determined this quotation appears in Dr. Prunty’s book Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism, which is listed under—prescient, eh?— Political Science on Google Books.)

The writers I know are incredibly reliable. When my dog tore off his dewclaw during a particularly rowdy round of fetch, a poet-friend dropped everything (uh, job interview prep) to drive him, bleeding in the back seat, to the puppy-ER. She & her husband also let me sleep on their futon for a week. Maybe this is just what friends do. But, take a quick tour of the pop-culture sphere, and the unreliable friend seems a sturdy trope of the millennial generation—they flaked on drinks, they flaked on the movies, they flaked on the birthday party, ad infinitum. These flake-friends sound like a box of Idahoan Instant Spuds.

Apparent, bolded in the quotation above, suggests multiplicity over binary structures. Love and Hate are not true opposites, but perhaps points on an ideological spectrum. Perhaps this spectrum exists in four dimensions, like life. Perhaps this is finally the best operational definition of Keats’s “Negative Capability.”

The etymology of “reliable” comes, in part, from the Latin “ligare”: to bind. See ligament, the OED says. I like this. I like to think reliability might be as integral to the architecture of one’s being as fascia and sinew.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the New Criticism’s desire to discount authorial intentionality is a supreme ambivalence toward truth. The syllogism works like this:

  • The text is a self-sustaining entity; all that matters is the text.
  • Any reasonable explication of the text is a valid reading.
  • Any reading is merely an opinion.

Unbound Opinion = Truth.

This is a faulty syllogism to be sure. But hey, same difference, right?

Intentionality matters now more than ever. Subjectivity might only be the apparent opposite of objectivity; there is, per force, a Utilitarianism to the writing life: we tell the small lie to expose the big truth. Perhaps the rules have changed though, perhaps we must now tell the big truth to expose the big truth.

All narration is unreliable. All memory is unreliable. Truth can, perhaps, only be approached asymptotically. Still, we must try to reach it.

I used to think that radical subjectivity led us here, to this place, where “post-truth” deserves a dictionary entry. I thought that my artful deceit wasn’t all that different from deceit in general. But that was before I understood that absolute self-reliance is pure myth.

Even the doomsday-preppers, the hardline self-reliers, (who are looking smarter by the minute), relied on others to grow, harvest, and can their corn, to parboil their rice, to dehydrate their boxed potatoes.

It’s a deleterious strain of narcissism which tricks us into believing we’ve done something alone, based purely on merit, hard work, sweat and blood and tears, etc. (Of course, ligaments don’t figure into that cliché.)

These days, I’m reminded often of the scene from the Odyssey in which, as their craft approaches the Sirens, Odysseus fills the ears of his crew with wax. In which they lash him to the mast. In which they bind him.

(Note: in legalese, a Ulysses Pact designates a freely made decision, which binds one in future action, as in an advance directive.)

If the ship is sinking, it must, I think, be our intention to navigate toward the fundamental veracity of humanity: different sameness, to rely on the spectrum of possibility. The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around, even the small joy I see in my students, as they recount Gatsby’s green light, across an expanse of water, symboled as it may be, dimmer now than it was before.

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Headshot_Grasser (1)J.P. Grasser currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and where he serves as Managing Editor of Quarterly West. J.P. will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry in September 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

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lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.

A Thousand Kisses Deep: On Rereading Virginia Woolf

by Ioanna Carlsen

Lately, I have been unhappy for both personal and political reasons, and at this stage in my life I don’t think either is going to go away. When this has happened in the past, it’s also happened to my books, to my reading: a lot does not ring true, much is unbearable, a lot is just boring.

And then I get lucky: I find the one book that just fits, is so right, I really look forward to getting into bed at the end of the day. The bliss of being by yourself with a book; I have loved this moment all my life; it is now my greatest joy, the moment I long for. I get up from it later and later.

So I found this book by Nick Hornby, Ten Years in a Tub, and I loved it—and as it was a book about reading I found a lot of books to look into in it. When reading such a book, I make these lists; it’s very enjoyable—not everything pans out, but there’s so much promise.

And besides new books, Hornby gets into rereading the classics—and I have had that idea for some time. Laboriously, I burrowed into The Past Recaptured (probably my fifth attempt to reread it); but this time, maybe with a little help from Hornby’s essay about it, I suddenly got into it. I mean I’m not saying it’s not a good soporific, if you’re not careful, or that you can’t use the endless paragraphs for that purpose when you need to…and America is “troubling my sleep” (Ezra Pound), and I do use it for that. But then there’s also Denys Finch-Hatton’s response to Karen Blixon in Africa: “you don’t fall asleep reading Proust.” The psychology, the depth of it…it’s often “a thousand kisses deep” (an idea that haunts me of Leonard Cohen’s), and in the middle of plodding through it and trying to pay attention, suddenly there’s an amazing phrase, a metaphor that, to quote Virginia Woolf, “fits like a glove.”

And speaking of her, I turned to her when I needed a break from Proust; I have all her books and a number of books about her; I haven’t read them in years. I went through a Virginia Woolf period the way you go through a Japanese cooking period and then go on to other cuisines.

But, lately, after the political backdrop of our lives turned into a nightmare—everything my generation thought we won since our coming of age, lost all over again, and to the worst kinds of politicians—I have found the contemporary novel and much of contemporary poetry are not holding up for me, or… are not holding me up.

Rereading the classics and discovering new contemporary work that doesn’t pall is something Virginia Woolf herself writes about. I can just see her in front of the fire at Monk’s House, (where of course I made a pilgrimage), a book in her hands, smoking, grimly elegant, frighteningly beautiful, taking notes for the essays she worked on in the afternoons…

I started with the essays, and found to my amazement that she is as fascinating and compelling as she ever was. Of course she is mad—you feel ashamed to say it considering her bouts with the direst insanity—the birds outside her window speaking Greek—and nothing to treat it but hot milk. But here she is, spooling out flight after flight of fancy:

In the middle of an essay on reading, you come upon this: “if, at this moment,…I could go back through the long corridor of sunny mornings, boring my way through hundreds of Augusts, I should come in the end, passing a host of less-important figures, to no less a person than Queen Elizabeth herself. Whether some tinted waxwork is the foundation of my view, I do not know; but she always appears very distinctly in the same guise. She flaunts across the terrace superbly and a little stiffly like the peacock spreading its tail. She seems slightly infirm…” and it goes on, until we get to “She breakfasts off beer and meat and handles the bones with fingers rough with rubies.” And then she still goes on, until you have the Elizabethan age itself, what makes it live, right before you.

Because it is her, and because her reading is so deep and broad, there are essays that eighty years later we are not interested in, like who really wants to read about The Faery Queen or the Duchess of Newcastle, but sometimes you think I better check, what if I miss some flight. And always you want to know what she thinks of Dickens, Austen, our own classics. I look forward to the diaries after the essays, and because it is her, I will never have to worry about a moment’s boredom. Her thoughts and her feelings, are, how can I say this, compared to what is going on around us, always the best, “a thousand kisses deep” compared to this, the farthest thing from lies and distorting the language.

I don’t know about the novels. I reread The Years a few years ago and disliked it. Of course, it’s not her at her best or even original—but I daresay if I read the middle passage on Time Passes in To the Lighthouse right now, that takes you back through hundreds of summers and rooms until you end up with no less a figure than life itself, and what it is to leave it—and none of it has anything to do with money and power, nothing at all—I believe it would break my heart.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Mouse That Scored

by Megan Marshall

Desperate for distraction in the wake of Trump’s election, I fell back on an old habit, reading children’s books at a rate unmatched since I was a grade-schooler. In those far-off days, my family was headed by an unemployed manic-depressive. My father also drank too much, but he wasn’t mean, only unpredictable and out of touch with the grim reality of our negligible finances, or convinced they didn’t matter in his case. He’d taken me with him once when he visited the downtown office of the gas company to which we must have owed a mint; he chatted up the receptionist, who responded to his charms and accepted his check for a fraction of the bill. The check may have bounced, but the heat stayed on. Back home, I kept reading.

With Hillary’s loss, I was too disheartened to resort to my old favorites, Little Women, The Little Princess, or A Wrinkle in Time—tales of brave bookish girls triumphing over adversity. That dream was dead. Instead I looked to stories like The Borrowers, in which tiny people living beneath the kitchen floorboards made do with items scavenged from the big folks above. Another favorite, The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright, featured a family of four children in Depression-era Manhattan who pooled their allowances each week to fund one of the kids in a trip to the opera, an art museum, the circus. I thought Stuart Little might offer the best of both fantasy worlds: I remembered how the two-inch tall mouse, mysteriously born into a family of full-sized humans living on the Upper East Side (as far as I could make out), slept in an empty cigarette box, used a doll’s toothbrush and comb when washing up, and piloted a model boat in Central Park through a sudden squall. But re-reading White’s classic only heightened my anxiety.

It’s been said that Donald Trump may never have read a book all the way through in his adult life, and I doubt he was an avid reader as a child. But someone must have read Stuart Little to the little Donald. The boy and the mouse grew up together in the city, albeit in different boroughs; the novel was published the year before Donald was born.

I’d remembered only Stuart’s resourcefulness—in wielding a tiny mallet to turn on the water tap to brush his teeth, in talking down the family cat Snowbell when she bares her teeth at him. I’d forgotten that Stuart’s distracting palaver involved bragging about his toned stomach muscles; that he falls in love with Margalo—a wall-eyed vireo or wren, no one’s sure—because of her voice.

Margalo—Mar-a-lago? I’ve always liked the way certain words turn into others with a quick twirl of an alphabetic kaleidoscope: evil can be vile or veil or live. Did this almost anagram lure Donald to his Florida home, as Stuart follows his emigree sweetheart (“I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle”) by toy car into the countryside when she flies away, rather than be consumed by Snowbell? Yet Donald’s stutter-step “Mar-a-lago” has a sinister ring to it, more villain than inamorata. “Mar”—to impair or disfigure—signals harm (add an “h” to “mar” and stir). And “lago” looks suspiciously like Shakespeare’s treacherous “Iago.” “Margalo,” by contrast, burbles and coos like the feathered friend herself. And Stuart wanted more of it. He asks Margalo, as if she were a beauty pageant contestant, to repeat (re-tweet?) what she’s just said in that adorable voice.

I’d also forgotten how, once Margalo has flown out of sight, Stuart falls for the first two-inch-tall girl he meets on his country rambles. He lures the ultra-petite Harriet Ames to a riverside rendezvous with a letter advertising himself as “well-proportioned,” “muscular beyond my years,” and “actually somewhat taller” than two inches in height. His only drawback: “I look something like a mouse.” Wait a minute—Stuart is a mouse!

Most of all I’d forgotten the chapter in which Stuart volunteers as a substitute teacher in a small town schoolhouse. “What’s the first subject you usually take up in the morning?” Stuart asks the class, holding forth from atop the teacher’s desk, small arms akimbo. Arithmetic, the children answer. “Bother arithmetic! . . . Let’s skip it!” Spelling? Consult the dictionary! Writing? “Don’t you children know how to write yet?” A chorus of yeses—“So much for that, then.” Social Studies? “Never heard of them.”

Finally Stuart launches into a lesson of his own devising: “I’ll tell you, let’s talk about the King of the World.” There is no such king, one child informs him. “There ought to be,” Stuart fumes. But kings are old-fashioned, the student protests. “All right then,” Stuart backpedals, “let’s talk about the Chairman of the World. The world gets into a lot of trouble because it has no chairman. I would like to be Chairman of the World myself.” I had to stop reading.

Donald Trump grew to be “somewhat taller” than six feet, but his hypersensitivity to size, in others, in his own appendages, in crowds, makes me think he’s a Stuart Little at heart. Tax returns, budget figures, rising ocean temperatures? Let’s skip it! Social studies? Never heard of them. Trump’s idea of being president seems a lot like “Chairman of the World.” Most telling of all is the self-delusion—the way he carries on as if he really were president, although we all know he’s not, could never be. But then, he is.

Donald. If you swap an o for an i, add an a, and scramble—you get Aladdin.

We’re into the first one hundred days of Trump’s administration. There will be more than a thousand and one nights to follow. The Trump family Scheherezades—Melania and Ivanka—aren’t about to tame their imperious lord. I’m a grownup. It’s time to put aside word games and escape reading and take the full measure of this mouse-of-a-man.

E.B. White ends his tale with Stuart still searching for Margalo: “As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” There is little to suggest that Trump’s direction as president will be anything other than instinctively “right” in the partisan sense. May he now recall the little people, the powerless—those who voted for him and those who didn’t—to whom he is psychically related, and work for them, rather than rule as the King of the World he may have thirsted to become since someone read him a children’s book about a mouse with a Napoleon complex.

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megan-marshall-2
photo by Gail Samuelson

Megan Marshall received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in biography for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Her new book, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, was just published this month. 

Small Grenades: Writing and Politics

by Sydney Lea

Who knows what the presidency of a self-regarding, mendacious, and abysmally ill-informed martinet bodes?

For the moment, however, most of us are lucky enough not to live in a system such as the old USSR’s, say, in which—as Joseph Brodsky once said in a journal I edited—merely to describe a flower accurately felt like a political act.

In much of the west, and particularly in the U.S, we face a subtler difficulty than that posed by authoritarian censorship: namely that the authorities (and the “public at large”) are unlikely to be swayed one way or another by anything like fiction or poetry, simply because those arts go largely unnoticed. To that extent, our better writing strategies likely involve newspapers or, more accurately in our day, social media, as opposed to the so-called creative arts.

But even online activism, to name it that, proves problematic, for at least two reasons. The first is that social media can put Einstein in the same house as the village imbecile: thus, if two disparate accounts of the same thing are broadcast, there is no determining which will strike a broad readership as more compelling. This was, off course, painfully exemplified by the idiotic controversy over President Obama’s birthplace. Those who chose to label him a Kenyan were simply not to be dissuaded by indisputable proof of his birth in Hawaii. The social media’s second great liability is that, just as oppressed parties may use them, so may their oppressors, a sad fact illustrated by the ill-starred Arab Spring and by frequent manipulations of information in China, for instance.

In the end, though here I am surely influenced by when I cut my teeth, it may be that more direct political activism—street demonstrations, working harder for genuinely progressive candidates, and so on—are the likeliest avenues to such success as the kind of people reading this may find.

But let us imagine a literature that was an effective tool of change. My surmise is that, like socialist realism, it would, qua writing, be bad or tepid in any case, simply because art founded primarily on an aprioristic agenda is usually doomed to inferiority in my view. As Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, has written: “The problem with socially conscious art is that, by attempting to address social ills directly, it begins with the notion that it already has the answers and merely needs to dramatize them. The results are predictably didactic and inert.”

All this may sound as though I urge political or social nonchalance upon the artist, urge him or her to be a little Nero, playing the violin as Rome burns. Not at all. In fact, exactly the contrary. Any poet who stayed innocent of the great migrant crisis of the world, for example, would be no poet at all. An artist must be as open as possible to all manner of observation, and must be jealous of those observatory powers, because the threats to them are myriad. To allow that openness to be usurped by anything—even the noblest political or moral conviction—is by my lights suicidal.

Here is a remark, which resonates with me, by my dear friend, poet Fleda Brown: “I’ve long since quit worrying about whether writing itself is a worthy use of my life. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change my inclination to do it. Anyway, I’m positive that it matters, words themselves being small bulbs buried under the soil, small grenades.”

I hope that Fleda is right, but in any case, I know that a willful effort to make my poems “political” or “relevant” in the way my own formative 60s demanded will serve no one: not me, not my reader, and not the causes I passionately subscribe to, including resistance to climate change, women’s right to their own bodies, a sane and compassionate attitude toward those disrupted by violence, which would go hand in glove with the development of a non-hysterical stance toward terrorism.

The only thing I really know to do is to beat at my keyboard. If what results is an explosion, I must accept that. If I am moved by a bloom or a bird or the birth of a grandchild, these are what I need to bring forth. The point is, we writers need to sustain belief in our own voices, and in their autonomy– not to the point of perversity or narcissism, but right up to those points. If we allow our voices to be controlled by dogma, even virtuous dogma (if there be such a thing), we might as well be writing advertisements or propaganda. We need to believe that our sincerest testimonies matter, even if we cannot define how that may be in any definitive way. We need to agree with William Carlos William’s assertion that

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

And again I agree with smart Fleda Brown: “Okay, to be really blunt: What do I—as a writer—do about Donald Trump? Theodore Roethke said, ‘My heart keeps open house.’ Omit nothing. Bombs, bullets, butterflies, beetles, Trump.”

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author photo craftsbury Sydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Getting a Book Wrong by Getting it Right

by David Ebenbach

One of the most surprising things about writing is that you can set out to do a particular thing, and completely succeed at doing that thing, and, as a result, produce something that is not good.

I learned this lesson in the process of developing my new short story collection, which originated in an idea. Probably this was not a great way to begin, but it’s how I began. I noticed that I had written a few short stories that were in the first person and starred a narrator who was trying to convince the listener/reader of something. A ha! I thought. A pattern! And so I decided that I was going to write an entire book of stories like that.

Side note: before my first collection of short stories, Between Camelots, was published, I would work on one individual story at a time and would only think about that particular story. I didn’t think about how that story might fit in with other stories, how it could be part of some emerging theme or focus, how it might fit into something bigger. I didn’t think in terms of books. Ever since Between Camelots came out, though, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about books, because books are fun and rewarding. Whenever I write a story now, I have this awful tendency to look right past it, wondering if it could be part of a collection. It’s a bad habit that I don’t know how to break.

Anyway, that habit was already in place when I decided (based on those several relevant stories I’d already written) that I was going to write a collection of first-person stories with narrators attempting to persuade. In a sense they would all be dramatic monologues. Well, I set out to write those stories, and over a couple of years I did write them. I got the job done. When I put them all together and slapped a title on the collection—Missionaries—I shared the manuscript with some very smart writer-friends, and they agreed: yes, I had indeed put together a book of first-person narrators pleading their cases.

The problem was that, as these very smart writer-friends told me, it was not a good book.

These very smart writer-friends told me that my attempt to pursue a focus had produced uneven stories; some were good, but others were clearly there just because I needed more of that type. I had lowered my standards in order to make sure my goals were met. Even worse, even if all the stories had been good, apparently it was pretty tedious, reading one narrator after the next all engaged with the reader in the same kind of way. In other words, I had succeeded in putting together a certain kind of book, but that kind of book was not going to work for a reader. Doing what you mean to do is not inherently a good thing; it’s only a good thing if what you mean to do is worth doing.

A somewhat euphemized version of a piece of advice I regularly give my students: You can smear mud all over a plate—on purpose, intentionally—but your intentions don’t make it dinner.

And so I retreated to my Writing Cave and pondered. Instead of pursuing the Missionaries idea further, I decided to let myself be guided by the power of the stories. I dumped the ones that were so-so and hung onto the ones that were solid. I also grabbed some other solid stories I’d written along the way, ones that I’d written even though they didn’t fit into the collection idea (sometimes I’m still a little irrepressible, even with my bad Could this be a book? habit), and I just put them all together, side-by-side, to see whether they might play nicely with one another. (That’s how I assembled my first book, after all.)

And it turned out that they did play nicely with one another. And in fact there was even a theme there—people trying to figure out how to fit into the social world—but the theme was not relentless, and it emerged organically instead of being an artificial force producing stories like an assembly line, and there were many different kinds of voices, and third-person stories (and even second-person stories!) to go with the first-person stories. There was variety. This was a collection rather than an idea stuck on repeat. When my very smart writer-friends read the new version, now called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories (and now published, I’m proud to say), they said it was good. They said that this was a plate of something that could reasonably be called dinner.

When it comes to assembling short story collections, intentions are not sacred. Intentions probably aren’t even necessary. Certainly they matter a lot less than the stories themselves.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the short story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

On Running a Democracy Without Reading

by Kelly Cherry

I don’t get out much these days. There are two reasons for this: I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and my husband and I live in the middle of nowhere, which is to say that there is nothing near enough for us to get to. We do, however, have televisions—plural, because Burke has games to watch, especially basketball and tennis. I turn on the TV in the bedroom sometimes even when I’m writing, although I don’t have it on at the moment. We have a couple of shows we watch—The Americans is terrific!—and Designated Survivor, because we are Kiefer Sutherland fans, even though we liked him better when he was defeating enemies and saving lives around the world. But mostly, in these traumatic days, I watch the news.

I was once in Trump Tower, the night it opened. I didn’t meet Trump himself, who was just a blank to me, and all I remember of this event (the opening) is seeing a famous literary figure—the head of a well-known publishing house—stuffing cocaine into his nostrils and sucking it up into his nose. I’d never seen anyone do this before; I was fascinated by the event, or perhaps I should say ritual. I admit I concluded that his ability to tell a good manuscript from a bad was likely impaired—assuming he actually read the manuscripts, and I think that’s doubtful.

I still have not met Donald Trump and I hope it never happens. He is, after all, a liar, a bully, desperately thin-skinned, and foolish. Foolish because he is poorly educated. He doesn’t read books; I doubt he even reads newspapers. Well, he did tell us that The National Inquirer is a factually correct device for finding out what is going on. He said this because the so-called newspaper had put him on their cover. What would be the point in meeting him? He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, nor would he care to know anything about me. He lives in the smallest of worlds and has even less communication with it than we in our isolated house do.

He has now established his team, the people who will serve him in his presidency. He must depend upon them because, despite his many “deals,” he knows very little. Very little of anything. How can someone who doesn’t read books know anything about the world? How much did he learn by dialing Taiwan? How much has he learned from Putin’s hackings? How much has he learned by tweeting?

Pretty much nothing.

And how much has he learned by doing deals in various countries? He has certainly learned about doing deals in those countries, but otherwise, he has learned—let’s all say it together—pretty much nothing.

Why do I think his lack of interest in reading is crucial? Not only because books inform us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books entertain us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books remind us of the beauty and power of writing, though I am glad they do. Books also teach us how to be human. They finely and delicately and forcefully demonstrate for us thoughts we have never thought or only barely thought. They teach us compassion and the need for it, illustrating the excitement of observation, the heartbreak and perpetual grief that occurs in every life, the gorgeous peace of serenity, the exhilaration of discovery. Yes, these experiences happen in people’s lives, and some people manage them and some don’t; but books instruct us in the details, the particularities of events, and thereby strengthen our understanding of love and loss, of being one and multiple, of feeling. They ready us for life and allow us to think on it. Even that publisher snorting coke in Trump Tower would have known this.

Watching our outgoing president presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his outgoing vice-president, those of us in front of TV sets saw both men cry. That was an exalted moment. In that moment, we knew both men, Obama and Biden, were as human as ourselves. Neither struggled to outdo the other in any way. There was no bullying, only comradeship, two guys who had worked well with each other. There were no lies on their tongues nor any desperation. Neither did or said anything foolish, because both are grown men who are well acquainted with the world and unafraid to acknowledge their limitations.

And now we have this incoming president who knows nothing but “making deals.”

I would be glad to have a writer as a president, or a painter perhaps. I don’t think the best president is necessarily a politician. I’d be glad to have a business man who also reads, or listens to Beethoven’s string quartets.

But Donald Trump is so benighted that he doesn’t understand why some people cry. He doesn’t know what other people feel, what they go through. He can’t allow himself to feel his feelings of inferiority and is unaware that others feel their own. He can’t tell the truth and is unaware that others do speak truth.

How can a man without awareness run a democracy?

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KellyPhoto1Edit BIO Kelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection, just published, is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.