Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Competition and Canonization

With the possible exception of slam poetry events, I have never favored poetry competitions. I simply don’t believe poetry should be a sporting event. During those kinds of contest, the person who has won has usually done so by figuring out how to win, which has less to do with poetry than figuring out what the judge(s) want. Sometimes the winner is awarded a “sympathy” vote as a means to encourage someone who may have potential or dedication. In any case, competition produces only one thing, sometimes in abundance, which is simply “losers.” How many brag they came in second? 

Even when an author or poet is attempting to get an award as a result of impressing a single judge, the only other outcome besides earning an award on merit alone is expecting a judge’s discriminating viewpoint or narrow criteria. I’ve always considered cooperation a better device than competition when it comes to building some kind of literary presence in a flagging cultural environment.

I’ve heard the term “all -inclusiveness” bandied about only to degenerate into internecine hierarchies which tend to get little done to get authors and poets published, or get them publicity outside certain insular circles.

Ultimately, all writers and poets, in spite of the protective and insecure ramparts of narcissism that enables them to feel safe, want it remembered that their work had some positive impact upon those around them. They may like the reassurance that 100 years from now their work will be subjected to discovery on some dusty library shelf or quaint corner bookstore; that their work will stand alone once more in some distant future. And “stand alone” is right -- alone and standing in someone’s temporal imagination.

I wouldn’t want to be the subject of that fate, not after all the work I’ve done. I would rather have been a part of something, to have had my work and the work of my contemporaries and those who came before me and those who’ll come after me part of something more tangible, more accessible, and more lasting. Something that was the product not of competition but of cooperation. Something like a local canon.

The Canon has begun to be subjected to globalization. The fiction of more international authors has been showing up, for example, in the pages of The New Yorker. Latin American authors like Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar have entered canonical consideration, as with the current excitement regarding the works of Roberto Bolaño, and Paco Ignacio Taibo for the more left leaning. As we become a more bilingual country, Spanish literary works become more relevant. In another area, science fiction has compiled a canon of works that is being slowly recognized by academia, and Black literature has always maintained a canon of literary works which struggles to find its role in the American canon of literature. It is the cross currents among these canonical works that we begin to understand better the story of the lives of people within the context of our social and cultural history.

The same role can be assigned to local or even regional canons of literature. Surely there is relevancy from these deep inner workings of American poets and authors who, while not achieving the same kind of success or the same kind of academic scrutiny, have proven their influence and contribution to those considered to have stood tall and alone in academic America’s literary landscape.

In a real sense, globalization has brought us a new spectacle. In the form of new literary works from diverse sources, our culture is displaying a greater effervescence. Like the head on a fresh cola or brew, each interlocking bubble is an entire canon, supportive of each other and expanding into a crackling of new knowledge and experience into a spray of that which refreshes. Pardon the metaphor but it cuts to the chase.

In the grand scheme of things, should the dynamic just described characterize the real world, then we ought to get in on the party. What we are and have been is one, or more, of those bubbles. We can contribute to the new effervescence by first becoming conscious of our local canon and supporting its consecration by academia, through constantly evolving public awareness, but also by mandate.

Institutions of public education are part of our government and we can use government to change and improve the situation. We can ask our state legislators to pass, and our governors to sign, laws that require local literature be taught in public schools of all levels. Perhaps in conjunction with a national effort that provides the extra jobs, local literature can be made more accessible to those who’ve created it over the years. Maybe it begins with us. Perhaps it’s waiting for the right time of our own making. Perhaps we should advocate a national effort at infrastructural rediscovery, beginning with our own literature and its place in our history.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Let's Put Our Heads Together

Let us put our heads together, and see if we don’t find our shoulders put to the same wheel of progress. By “us” I mean all who consider themselves part of the progressive community, whether they are from the arts, organized labor, community organizations, the blogosphere, non-profits, or the rest of civil society.  How put our heads together? Add your comments at Broken Turtle Blog.

Now, I’m not saying that the verbal fisticuffs at many local blogs don’t exhibit some vigorous thinking-on-one’s-feet, but the Broken Turtle Blog, with its well-crafted commentary on arts and politics, has some of the most thoughtful writing in the Delaware Valley, if I may toot our own horns. Sure, there is some high-quality word-smithing in some of the other blogs, not to mention in the News Journal, Delaware Today, Out and About, and some academic organs in our state. Hell, we on the blog team at Broken Turtle have written for most of these fine publications. But the Broken Turtle Blog takes on the topics those outlets cannot or will not touch, from the corporate domination of the arts, to the claustrophobic pettiness of Delaware’s culture, to the clueless snobbery of would-be progressives.

In four months, the Broken Turtle Team of Steven Leech, Phillip Bannowsky, Franetta McMillian, and Douglas Morea has broken new ground and struck some hidden veins of contention, some of gold and some that bleed.

For example, right from the start in Literary Anemia, Steven Leech challenged the homogenized national market in books with a call for a revival of local literature. Then he illustrated the theme with Discovering Local Cultural Mythology, where he unlocks the roman-a-clef Love’s Pilgrimage by the original muckraker Upton Sinclair, about how poet Harry Kemp ran off with Sinclair’s wife when they all lived in Arden, Delaware. Leech reviews Mark McGurl's new book, The Program Era in Casualties from the Fast Track, adding to McGurl's work his own take on the commoditization of art. Leech takes on the establishmentarian Brandywine Tradition in  Why We Should and How We Can Preserve Our Local Literatures, Part One, about the families that have defined the limits in Delaware’s economic and cultural life for a century, and he follows up with Part Two, which deals with the one-time alternative source of literary funding, the Works Progress Administration of FDR’s New Deal. Leech follows up in Following What Money There Is to explain the continuing difficulties of re-establishing state support for artists after the privations of WWII and the degradations of McCarthyism from the 50s to today.

Phillip Bannowsky’s inaugural column announced Dreamstreets Archive, the impressive store of three decades of progressive literature and art in the Delaware Valley. He introduced his now continuing refrain about the responsibilities of artists, as members of civil society, to assert their citizenship in Toward an Ecology of Local Literature. The theme is expanded in Bannowsky’s critique of corporate control of arts funding in Arts and Civil Society on Maggie’s Farm. Bannowsky reprints his column from Op-Ed News on Avatar and the Destruction of Haiti to illustrate the limitations of corporate-dominated art when addressing solidarity with the indigenous of the earth or other planets.

Douglas Morea praises the Dreamstreets Archive in his spare but pithy Thanks and Good Goin'!, observing that “this visit to memory lane is more importantly a trip to the future.”

In Telling Stories, artist and critic Franetta McMillian attempts to answer the question, “How might progressives learn to tell better stories? For one thing,” she answers, “don’t be snobs.” In our latest column, Between Barack and a Hard Place, McMillian sympathizes with President Obama as a high-achieving African American held to a near perfect standard of the king’s English and suggests, “if Obama had affected the folksy, befuddled persona of say, George W. Bush, during his campaign, he would have never been elected.”

Progressives have to believe the wheel of life rolls toward peace and a cooperative commonwealth. Join your words to the common effort at the Broken Turtle Blog.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Between Barack and a Hard Place

Last Saturday during the forced downtime of Snowmageddon Part 1, my mother and I were discussing President Obama’s recent woes. “Why don’t they just leave that man alone and let him do his job?” Mom asked. “How come they have to pick apart everything he says? Don’t they know he’s only human?"

“Well Mom,” I replied, “it’s because he’s President and not only that, he’s the first Black President, so of course they’re going to pick apart everything he says.”

She heartily agreed.

During her highly anticipated (and compensated) Tea Party keynote, Sarah Palin derisively referred to Obama as a “charismatic guy with a teleprompter” and a “law professor at a lectern” as if being charismatic and having a formidable intellect were somehow undesirable qualities to have in the leader of the free world.

But, ironically, these are precisely some of the qualities that make Obama such a perfect opponent for Palin and her compatriots — or indeed make him an opponent at all. Because if Obama had affected the folksy, befuddled persona of say, George W. Bush, during his campaign, he would have never been elected. Seriously. Think about it. If Obama (like Mary Poppins) hadn’t been nearly perfect in every way, if he hadn’t gone to Harvard, made Law Review, had an expert command of the English language, many voters would have never given him a second look.

Even though Obama doesn’t like to highlight his race, the fact that he is Black immediately places him under incredible scrutiny. Whether he likes it or not, his words are never entirely his own. When Barack Obama speaks, many Americans don’t see just a man speaking, they see a Black man speaking and his words are parsed with all the unspoken baggage that fact brings with it. He can’t, for instance, make a grammatical error, and have it just be an innocent (and maybe even an endearing) mistake. For some that error may just prove what they unconsciously have believed all along: that’s he’s Black, ignorant and therefore unfit for his office.

Being a Black woman who’s spent most of her life in extreme minority situations, I am quite familiar with that kind of pressure. From an early age, my parents taught me that it was not enough to merely be good; as the only Black kid in the school for much of my academic career, I had to be the best. So-called Black English and slang were discouraged even during casual family gatherings. If you didn’t learn how to properly read, speak and write the King’s English, the cruel White world was never going to give you a chance. If you dressed sloppily, had even a hair out of place, no one would bother trying to see your true potential. In short, you had to be perfect — just to have a crack at being human.

My lack of an obvious “ethnic” accent and command of standard English has allowed me to do some pretty amazing things like attend excellent schools, publish in an elite academic journal and do a two-hour telephone interview with a local skinhead with him never suspecting he was speaking with the enemy. It’s also gotten me labeled as uptight and elitist. (“You actually spell-check your e-mails?” a co-worker once asked me in disbelief.)

Similarly, President Obama’s considerable strengths cut both ways. The qualities that helped get him elected, namely his exceptional oratorical skills and quick mind, also get him labeled intellectual, elitist and out of touch with the people, even though before the sales of his books, Obama was a man of relatively modest means.

Recently Obama has been letting his hair down, speaking in his shirt sleeves, using more casual diction in his speeches in an effort to prove that yes, he hears us. But even this more populist Obama chooses his words deliberately and is keenly aware of the effect his language has on his image — which is as it should be. The President of the United States is not your beer buddy; he’s President and should carry himself as such. But I also suspect he knows — whether he likes to discuss it or not — that as a Black man his every word and deed are being watched and that even on a bad day, he has to give 120% just to break even.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Following What Money There Is

In Delaware author Victor Thaddeus' unpublished novella "Leo Rex," from the late 1930s, there is buried in it the suggestion that there ought to be, and very well could be, a U. S. Department of Arts and Culture, which would enjoy equal status with the Departments of State, Treasury, Interior, Commerce, and War as part of the President's Cabinet. This was not a notion that Thaddeus held alone. Many, who, like Thaddeus, were members of the various Federal Arts, Writers’, Theater, and Musicians' Projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during FDR's Administration in the late 1930s, thought those projects might evolve into a new United States Department of Arts and Culture. After all, many developed countries have Ministries of Arts and Culture that serve in the highest echelons of government, including the former Soviet Union and Cuba. Why not in the United States, the most "developed" country on the planet?

While the FWP (Federal Writers' Project) did not accept works of fiction, Thaddeus' novella was accepted as a piece for a dramatic adaptation for the local Theater Project. All those in the various Projects, whether they painted murals, wrote, worked in the theater, or played a musical instrument, got paid for their work. It was a real living.

The various Projects never got the opportunity to evolve into a Department of Arts and Culture. The Second World War came along, supplanting the WPA and gobbling up a lot of budding artists, writers, and cultural workers into the Draft, and the idea of such a noble seat in the President's Cabinet evaporated.

After the War, soldiers came home war-weary to social problems endemic to peacetime conversion, to the launching of the "baby boom," and to a slowly growing social and political paranoia that would blossom into a Cold War that would bury any serious cultural endeavors in a heap of McCarthyite, HUAC-driven cultural conformity and emotional mass apathy. Television put people to sleep in what former FCC Chairman Newton Minow in 1961 would call a "vast wasteland." For many, Minow’s warning was a wake-up call to the plight of our country's cultural health.

In 1965 the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was created by an act of Congress and in 1967 the Public Broadcasting Act was enacted, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was founded in 1970. Finally, after nearly a quarter century of mind-numbing 1950s cultural vacuity, some sort of public funding for the arts was established. Though not on the scale that the WPA had funded and supported the arts, the establishment of these institutions did coincide with the cultural flowering of the counter-culture. The multiple events may have sent nascent right-wingers of the day into a lather.

The Roe v. Wade decision from the Supreme Court in 1973 provided the opening wedge issue that galvanized the right wing for the culture wars that have been raging ever since. Things sprung into high gear in 1981 when Ronald Reagan attempted to abolish the NEA, but it gave right wingers like the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina the claim that they didn't want their tax money paying for public programming of the kind or content they disapproved. Incrementally, they made enough reductions in public funding for public broadcasting to lead to the interminable fund-raisers being broadcast on public radio and television today which drive many viewers and listeners back to that vapid vast wasteland.

Funding for the arts is a different matter. According to my experience and from what I've observed at close range from other arts organizations, public funding provides only enough money to place an organization into a fund raising-mode, so that the organization is spending valuable time and effort raising the remainder of the funds needed to produce artwork. For individual artists, of whatever discipline, public funding is usually a pittance, even with the largest awards. And it has been my experience, regardless of the quality of the writing itself, that one must be careful of what one writes about. What it all means is that for the individual artist, keep that day job, and for arts organizations, be prepared to put some arts projects on the back burner in order to spend time and effort scrounging around for patronage. This is a far cry from the kind of funding and support established during the New Deal.

For funding of artists, writers, thespians, musicians, and composers, as well as for organizations of and for artists of all kinds, a Brand New Deal is needed; maybe even one which some conservatives in "red states" or under the spell of the "Tea Party" can accept for whatever positive cultural contribution they can make to their constituents. Regardless of whatever reaction might come from the reactionaries, might this be a relevant issue for all artists, writers and poets, thespians, and music makers to adopt and make an effort to achieve? Or might it be better to keep that day job and spend that spare time leftover from the creation of artwork to go around begging for patronage from the fat cats?