Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why We Should and How We Can Preserve Our Local Literatures (part 1)

I first learned about the literary works of Delaware artist Howard Pyle when I was in junior high school or maybe the higher grades of elementary school. Pyle’s literary works were designed for child readers, many of them retelling older stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur, but some were original stories. For a long time I was led to believe that Pyle was the only literary artist Delaware ever produced. Sometime during my high school or college years I heard about the Milford Bard just before I learned that his name was John Lofland. I was led to believe that his work had been mired in a kind of 19th century parochial literary obsolescence and for a long time I didn’t even bother to find out anything about him. The only thing I learned about Lofland was his reputation, which was promoted as unsavory, and that was outside of any exposure to him in school.

Now, 45 or 50 years later, I’m still on my journey of discovery of Delaware’s literary past—closer to the end of it, I hope, than its beginning. Along the way I’ve discerned why Pyle was promoted over Delaware’s many other literary artists. Pyle was safe. No one would question the world around them as might occur after reading the serious works of Lofland and nearly all the marginalized local literary artists who followed him.

My journey of discovery has been a delightful one for me, discovering that those who populate Delaware’s literary past did not work in isolation. The names of known American literary artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Paul Laurence Dunbar, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane—just for starters—kept popping up in direct connection with those from Delaware who I began to conclude had been unjustly obscured. My delight was peppered with dismay regarding not only the relative unavailability of their works, but the general ignorance of their works by those who should actually have known better, namely those charged with the course of studies for our various educational systems. We can’t depend on local newspapers and magazines to maintain awareness of this segment of our cultural heritage. Unlike visual art and musical and theatrical events, literature does not have the same kinds of social connections. The consumption of literature, with the possible exception of poetry readings, is usually limited by the boundaries of a single press run and consumed within the privacy of personal space.

The more we remove ourselves from formally learning about our literary history and the substance of the literary works that accompany that history, the more superficial and the more vulnerable our cultural identity becomes. We’ve already lost so much. An example can be provided by an adjacent cultural project of mine, that of recovering Wilmington’s rich jazz legacy. It’s generally acknowledged that Wilmington produced one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever to pick up a trumpet, namely Clifford Brown, who is actually a product of many who contributed to the legacy that made his success possible. There had been so much material that could have demonstrated this legacy that contributed to Wilmington’s place in the American history of jazz, but so much of this material was never considered important and, as a result, was relegated to the local landfill by those who saw no importance in saving things like recordings made for broadcast in local radio stations, publicity photographs, copies of articles and handbills and other ephemera that would have told a richer and more lasting story than the sketchy and uncorroborated one handed down to us.

Regarding literary history, here’s another example: I once had a casual conversation with an octogenarian poet in Wilmington, the former Delaware Poet Laureate David Hudson, about Wilmington poet James Whaler, his poetry and his connection to Hart Crane. Whaler’s work has been completely forgotten. Of his two books of really stunning poetry, only a single copy of Hale’s Pond, which was praised publicly by Louis Untermeyer, can be found in the annex of the University of Delaware’s Special Collections. Whaler’s Green River, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Hart Crane, is not to be found in either the Wilmington or University of Delaware libraries. Had I not had that conversation with Hudson, who died seven years ago, I would have known absolutely nothing about Whaler and would not have had the opportunity to rediscover his work in order to share what I had discovered.

The longer we proceed with not preserving aspects of our cultural legacy, the greater the chance of loosing them forever and the more disconnected we get from ourselves as a community.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Arts and Civil Society on Maggie’s Farm

Reconnecting Individual Plight with Common Struggle
Well, he hands you a nickel,
He hands you a dime,
He asks you with a grin
If you're havin' a good time,
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
(“Maggie’s Farm,” by Bob Dylan)
     Civil Society, which includes nonprofits, unions, and artists, needs a common vision that reconnects individual plight with common struggle nationwide. I was reinforced in this conviction by three articles that appeared Tuesday in my local paper, the News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware.
     The first deals with the dearth in funding for Delaware non-profits, as reported by Mary Kress Littlepage, author of “Philanthropy in the First State.” According to the report, state non-profits “lack the organization, financial stability and sufficient support from foundations, corporations and individuals to handle the state's growing needs.” If this is true in tiny Delaware, U.S. banking capital and home to half the nation’s corporations, it is replicated, I am sure, all across the United States of Maggie’s Farm.
     The second, an AP story by Brett Zongker, describes President Obama’s salutary interest in the arts, evidenced by White House performances, arts workshops there, and an infusion of stimulus funds into the arts sector, which, according to the article, “employs nearly six million people at a hundred thousand nonprofit art groups.”
     The last, seemingly unrelated to the other two, actually strikes the common theme: the atomized approach to the human condition that focuses on individual plight rather than social solutions to that plight.
     The story touts a visit by celebrity scold Bill Cosby, who brought his personal responsibility message to inner-city youth at Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House. Author of "Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors," Cosby asserted in an interview that "[s]ome people seem to use the fact that racism exists to create an inertia of entropy,” adding that “[s]ome 'poverty pimps' want us to not move to become unstuck."
     Now, it is a recurrent myth that Black leaders from Frederick Douglas to W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, and Al Sharpton trade responsibility for victimology.
     Not so fast on connecting “the Cos” to that myth. Maybe he agrees with Frederick Douglass in how taking individual responsibility can turn folks from “victims to victors”: "He who would be free must strike the first blow."
     Striking the first blow is not the recommendation of Littlepage’s nonprofit study, which was prompted by the Public Policy Institute, an affiliate of the state Chamber of Commerce. It prescribes “more robust leadership so the nonprofit community can speak with a stronger voice to donors and local governments.”
     Don’t expect John Taylor, formerly of the News Journal and now Institute Executive Director, to invite anyone to challenge corporate wisdom at the follow-up forum scheduled at the University of Delaware March 22 and 23.
     Neither in community service nor in the arts may one “strike the first blow” without untoward consequences, even when one’s weapons are mere words, unless one speaks with an empowering common vision and powerful allies.
     For example, while the Obama administration may have signaled a revival of state support for the arts, Obama appointee Yosi Sergant was blown out of his National Endowment for Arts job when he suggested that artists address health care, education, and the environment, after Fox News mouth Glenn Beck belched.
     Similarly, the nonprofit ACORN, which pushed charity too close to empowerment, was entrapped, framed, and slandered by Fox and then unconstitutionally stripped of its funding by the Democratic-controlled Congress. At this writing, the U.S. Eastern New York District Court has just issued an injunction against the funding cut-off.
     In both cases, when conservatives led the charge against a civil society of empowerment, liberals led the retreat.
     Civil society, according to the London School of Economics “refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action,” distinct from “the state, the family, and the market,” but whose relation to state, family, and market remains “complex, blurred and negotiated.” It is essential to the workings of democracy. Negotiation and uncoercion are key.
     The problem is that civil society in the USA is atomized and obsessed with individual victimization, if you will, counseling a foreclosed homeowner here, protesting prison conditions there, advocating for individual identities of race or gender, or writing a pretty lyric about dreams of roses blossoming in the ordure. As we have seen, when civil society challenges power, then state and market will turn from negotiation to coercion, which negates both civil society and democracy.
     So how do we revive “Hope,” now foundered on bank bailouts, militarism, and astroturf tea parties? How do we move to a common vision, a common struggle, and a successful grassroots movement?
     One model is what I have observed working and writing in Ecuador, a model adopted in various ways throughout Latin America. Civil society—unions, left parties, NGOs, women, gays, charities, liberation churches, artists—have developed a common vision, an alternative to the “neoliberal” triumphalism of big banks, captive political parties, and free market individualism. In fits and starts, they have made dramatic advances recently across the continent, with the voices of the poor now heard, their needs addressed, and a flowering of people’s culture.
     It is time for local artists and writers to rebuild their roots in the community and to fulfill their role in civil society. Get your nickels and dimes from Maggie if you can, but unite to demand power to the people.
Sunday, Dec. 13 Update:
     The News Journal dropped the other shoe Sunday with three op-eds and an editorial on the non-profit crisis, "indicative" according to the editorial, "of a 20th century sense of entitlement to donors based more on stated needs. . . than. . . an ability to get the mission accomplished as efficiently as possible. " Not too much about the sense of entitlement to bailouts for banks after wrecking the economy or to tax cuts for corporations who have outsourced jobs and accelerated the needs addressed by non-profits beyond their capacity to "get the mission accomplished." 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Toward an Ecology of Local Literature

     What does a behemoth publisher like Bertelsmann AG, the German firm that owns Bantam, Doubleday, and Random House, have in common with an agricultural giant like Cargill, Inc.? Besides the obvious, that they are both transnational corporations, they both replace local harvests with bio-engineered invasives.
     Unlike “frankensoy” shipped from China, of course, literature in this digital age does not leave a long carbon trail, unless China is where it is printed. Hence, I do not object to disseminating the multicultural garden sprouting from the soils of every bioregion or under the feet of our migratory human race.  It’s a vital part of thinking globally.
     What I object to is the silence, the engineered inability to sense the here and now, to lift one’s nose and sniff the rot in the local breeze. What does a neighborhood smell like when a bank owns all the politicians and peddles bunko credit? What does the water feel like as it slowly heats the proverbial frog?
     Non bio-engineered local writers may ask, “If we don’t submit to altering our genetic codes, how will we earn our daily bread?"
     We know how the current publishing model promotes only block-busters and their imitators, how books by unknown authors get but a few months to justify space on the global book shelves before being remaindered to the dollar store or extinguished in the shredder.
     How much less might a local writer find a market, with his provincial interests in, oh, say, some biker tased and gunned-down by cops as he rolls forward vomiting on a city stoop and the attorney general whose dad is the Vice-President of the United States saying it’s OK or some black chicken catchers at a downstate farm replaced by machines after they sue for years of stolen wages? What local business or multinational corporation headquartered here would bankroll that sharp nose?
     What state grants would do more than keep a non-bioengineered native writer chasing a perpetually receding horizon?
     Here’s what we do. Local progressives activist: read and promote local literature and use it as an organizing tool. Reformist non-profits on the sugar-tit of corporate grants: utilize local literature to generate a common vision and uncommon strength. Local writers: turn from all that “how” of writing you get with MFAs and workshops to the “what’s going on” you get when you turn on your senses and engage with your neighbors. Using both cyberspace and local space, meet, collaborate, and forge deep alliances.
     When each local community sows its political and cultural seeds in its own soil, we’ll weed out the corporate invasive strains and reap literature that’s alive and change we can smell, taste, and see.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Casualties from the Fast Track

          I recently read Mark McGurl's new book, The Program Era, about the effect graduate level creative writing programs in a growing number of colleges and universities have had on the availability of new fiction in the American literary market place. While there have been a number a good reviews, most notably in The New Yorker and Rain Taxi, I'm not going to add my two cents regarding McGurl's excellent insights. I will only say that McGurl has confirmed what I, as an unknown and largely unpublished novelist, have already long ago concluded: that the best way to successful publication is to have that "MFA fast track."
  After I wrote my first novel back in the 1970s, the only literary agent I could find to consider my work was one to whom I had to pay about $200. After a period of time, he (or someone in his employ) read my novel and sent it back with a report. While the report was generally a good one, he admitted that he couldn't "place" it. Later I saw this same literary agent being interviewed on a national television program. He had some really nice rings on his fingers and I realized I had probably paid for one of those rings. Then I got it. I realized I was the rube.
  I've now written six novels and have self published four of them in very small numbers at my own expense. After trying to find an agent after writing my second novel, querying every agent I could find from various listings, I realized that finding a literary agent was as difficult as trying to find a prospective publisher used to be. First I suspected that the role of literary agents was to screen out the plethora of aspiring new novelists on behalf of a diminishing diverse yet concentrated publishing industry, one that was looking to make more profits while scaling back on its costs of production. In this regard, I also realized that picking from the pool of well-trained creative writers provided by the MFA programs was a way of being assured of finding potentially lucrative products. I found this process a cynical way for the publishing industry to get students to actually pay, through their tuition, for the process of finding potentially worthy works for publication –– yet another cost saving measure.
  I know at least four other novelists in my immediate community who have written novels. None of them have been successful, and by that I mean have not made any money from their labor. I absolutely refuse to believe their works are unworthy of success. Another local novelist, who had the MFA fast track and published a couple of monetarily successful novels from a mainstream publisher, turned her back on the local literary community except to acquire a few sycophants before moving away. This defines the dynamic between the money making profit hungry publishing industry in collusion with canonical oriented academia as suggested by McGurl’s The Program Era, and aspiring, yet stranded, local or regional novelists and fiction writers. It is the reason I advocate a new resurgence of local or regional publishing enterprises: to infuse new full bodied substance into an anemic national literature from the places from where we find inspiration, from the places where literary artists have aspirations, and for those places that ought to be in touch, through artistic works of all kinds, with our local cultural, social and historic environments. Such are the parts that truly constitute the sum of our national cultural identity.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thanks and Good Goin'!

As an official member of the Broken Turtle enterprise, and as one who has participated as writer and sometime editor in Delaware regional literary traditions going back to the beginnings of the Dreamstreets event, I should be quite an insider. Yet I am aloof, and always have been of my own accord wayward in my attachments and thoughts. (The preface of a recent local publication describes me as a "curmudgeon.") So I felt startled and grateful when I recently revisited the host of old material now available here, work of my own and that of old cohorts, much wonderful stuff that I'd long since forgotten. Phil Bannowsky and Steven Leech have done a wonderful deed in pulling such dust back into life. I can only hope that others will be so startled as well. An irony of the information age is that while it pushes the printed word aside, it simultaneously offers language and literacy a new center stage. Kids coming up now find it natural, some of us old-timers are still adjusting to the repackaging of whatever we find sacred. So this visit to memory lane is more importantly a trip to the future. Not a native Delawarean, and a relative latecomer to the region, I cannot personally relate as deeply as some to the innuendos of the locality (I'm a New York City boy, sorry), but I have been struck particularly, over the last 30 or so years, by one aspect of the local tradition: it has one foot in scholarship, and the other in the spontaneous culture of individual body and mind-- there is much voice in so many voices.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dreamstreets Archive

     The bane of the small regional literary magazine is that the audience is limited to the readership of a very short run. This not only denies the authors and artists who produced it access to their audience, but it also denies the audience a chance to participate in the cultural expression of their world, a world “rapidly paved over with asphalt and vested interests,” as the Dreamstreets editors put in on the front page of Dreamstreets 7 (Beltane, May 1989).
     Thus, when Steven Leech and I were scanning the Dreamstreets archive to make it available in an electronic form, I became increasing excited and proud. This was thirty years of cultural artifacts, restored to the community from the middens of oblivion. Many of the artists and writers appearing in this archive are flourishing today, Dreamstreets having midwifed the birth of their artistic careers. And this is what I am proud of.  Along with Steven Leech, Franetta McMillian, e. jean lanyon, Douglas Morea, Chris Oakley, and Dana Garrett in various terms, I served on the editorial board of Dreamstreets for many years until its final edition, #50, in 2006. Steven Leech had been the executive editor in every production since Betty Tew edited #2 after Dreamstreets was founded by John Hickey and a cohort of visionaries calling themselves the Eschaton Writers in 1977.
     On that original staff were Peter Barrett, Lew Bennett. Julio Bezerra, Herb Connor, Candi Costis, Mark Delmerico, Bruce Frye, Terry Golstein, John Hickey, e. jean lanyon (who was often co-editor in earlier years), Betty McCaughey, David Moyer, David Robertson, Carl Schlatter, Susan Smith, Leslie Turner, Floyd van Riper, Ed Wesolowski, Tom Watkins, Jim Zingheim, and Carson Zollinger.
     At last, we present the Dreamstreets Archive at, accessible in a link from Broken Turtle Blog. We will soon add a trove of audio and possibly video files to the archive, so it is a living instrument.
     Among the numerous artists and writers who have graced Dreamstreets’ pages, many are Delaware Division of the Arts grant recipients, Poet Laureates, a few recently departed and immortalized in our pages, some immortals from our region’s past, and many brilliant flashes of poetic starlight that might have been missed by the residents of Delaware’s small—some would say impacted—universe.
     These writers and artists are largely progressive in the broadest sense, giving voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless, and that, of course, made the publishing of Dreamstreets “downwind from chateau country” all the more extraordinary. Dreamstreets is a source of justifiable pride for the brave little phalanx who with it took a stand.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Discovering Local Cultural Mythology

  One magical thing any kind of artwork does is to serve to mythologize place. Locally, for example, the Brandywine Tradition artists have provided a second sight of the countryside just north of Delaware's border allowing us to see the Brandywine Valley through their artistic sensibilities. We are fortunate to have these art works with us, which preserve this transformative vision of our local mythology for our community. Both literature and visual art have served to provide greater significance regarding place as well as for their accompanying time frames, freezing them within our imagination. However, there are comparable examples from local literature that are obscured by their relative unavailability. Re-acquainting ourselves with our local literature can be quite rewarding because of its transformative social and cultural value. However, we don't always need to find this process in literature from local authors, even if their books had once entered the national literary arena. Occasionally a long out-of-print and nearly forgotten novel provides a true story enhanced by the vision of a literary artist, as well as a true story about other literary artists who once lived among us in an unique place; that unique place is a town in northern Delaware called Arden.
For a period of time, in the years before World War I, the American author Upton Sinclair lived in Arden. He used the proceeds from his novel, Love's Pilgrimage, to build a house that still stands there. The work of American poet Harry Kemp attracted Sinclair, who invited Kemp to come and live for a spell. Kemp, who was Sinclair's contemporary, was known as a "tramp" poet. Kemp rode the rails in his day, hanging out with the "Wobblies," or members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and transforming his own vision of working and struggling against economic poverty in America into his poetry.
In 1922, Kemp published his novel, Tramping on Life, which is actually a roman-a-clef about his travels. The novel includes the episode of his life in Arden, which he calls "Eden," and his interaction with Sinclair, who becomes "Penton Baxter" and wife Meta, or "Hildreth Baxter." Incidentally, Arden's founder Frank Stephens becomes "Alfred Grahame" in Kemp's novel.
The philosophy behind Sinclair's novel, Love's Pilgrimage, in part a tome to the notion of "free love," was put to the test in Arden, and to make a long story short, Kemp, or "John Gregory" as he refers to himself, ends his visit with Sinclair by running off to New York with Sinclair's wife Meta in a blatant exercise in "free love." In New York they join that community of pre-World War I progressives made up of Emma Goldman (Emma Silverman), Lincoln Steffins (Carruthers Nefflin), John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O'Neill and Djuna Barnes, among others.
I don't know about anyone else, but every time I visit Wilmington I'm fully aware that I walk the same streets that once Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald walked. It's as if I share a tiny bit in common with these venerable literary figures. They are not the only ones. There are others, like Kemp and Sinclair, who have seen and transformed this place where I live into their own visions that augment the annals of American literature for the greater fulfillment of American culture. When I read the works of those who also took up space in this place I call home, I have a better idea of how to look at my surroundings today, and, as spooky as it sounds, I wonder how closely what they felt about what they saw resembles how I see and feel about what I see here every day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Literary Anemia

     I keep encountering these anecdotal reports about the reading habits of people in just about every country and how they differ from those same reading habits of people in the United States. In other countries there are more diverse titles readily available than here, people tend to read books containing more substantial subject matter, there is a better awareness and appreciation of a particular country’s national literature, people still read the works of poets and authors even after they’ve died, you’re more likely to find more waitresses and truck drivers reading books more closely resembling literature than pop fiction, and so on. One indication of this phenomenon is when, on occasion, I see film footage or photographs of sidewalks in other countries where books are displayed in profusion for sale, or I hear of international cities that have more bookstores than do our cities.
     I don’t see anything wrong with people reading the latest romance or vampire fad novel, or latest MFA formula novel on some national bestseller's list, but I wish there were a few more folks like me who find better books to read from a really good library, like the one at the University of Delaware, or good books that must be ordered because so few people know about them.
     Reading sensibilities, especially for literary art, really strike me as being anemic in my community here in my part of Delaware. I suspect the same is true in many parts of the United States. Yet I know we are surrounded by a rich presence of both past and current locally produced literature. It’s just that it’s invisible. I’m convinced we’re not alone in our affliction with literary anemia. This condition is, I’m almost certain, a national affliction.
     Perhaps ever since the advent of television, American literature has become the nearly exclusive playground of insular academia. Pop fiction has largely supplanted literature, but good literature is also deserving of public appreciation. The implied message is if one wants to be exposed to real literature, then go to college. For me, as one who would rather write literature than pop, hack, or pulp fiction, I find this situation unacceptable for any number of reasons, notwithstanding the belief that people deserve access to our national literature as a normal part of our cultural life.
     A good solution to this problem is to begin to rebuild our national literature by rediscovering our regional or local literature. Past literary artists from Delaware had connections to national figures like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, H.L. Mencken, Hart Crane, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name only a few. These connections can certainly enhance the appreciation of the literary lives of these notables as well as of the literary contributions of John Lofland, Robert Montgomery Bird, Victor Thaddeus, James Whaler and John Biggs, Jr., who were not only the formers' counterparts from Delaware but who shared influences with them and, in their own right, once garnered national literary reputations in their own times. The latter still have important things to tell us through their literature; their literature still holds up under literary criticism and their works can still enhance not only local literary and cultural environments but also better our understanding of our national literature. After all, isn’t one of the true meanings of literature its timelessness in the context of today’s social and cultural dilemmas?
     The way to begin the process is to first create an awareness of local and regional literature, pointing out all the crosscurrents and shared influences with notables from our national literature. This is what Delaware's Dreamstreets project attempted to do since 1977 with its many publications, radio and television broadcasts, and public readings. I firmly believe that some pleasant surprises will be discovered in some far-flung corners of our country that will result in filling out the portrait of who we are as a country. Beyond this, we need to make sure examples of past local literature remains in print, even if only in a local or regional market, maximizing the public’s access to it.
     Finally, we need to make sure our local literature is taught in schools and colleges so it can be better appreciated and understood. Perhaps, as a result, we’ll discover our national literature is not anemic, that we can build a marketplace for more literary art, and in the process, learn a little bit more about ourselves as a nation.