Poets and Writers Live: Of writers and political conscience

I write from passion and desperation; my heritage is as a punk and a hippie, a fan of visionary and beat poetics, a lover of revolutionaries and rebels. I also am drawn to the severe aesthetics of writers like Nabokov and Wallace Stevens. I straddle worlds.

But let’s have a little context.

The Friday before the Jan. 10, 2015,  Poets and Writers Live event at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, I walked up and down 24th Street distributing cards and posters  for my business of giving writing workshops and arranging international retreats.

I went to Adobe Books, Alleycat Books, and Modern Times. At Modern Times I ran into journalist Denise Sullivan, and asked her about prospects for survival at the venerable progressive Modern Times bookstore. Prospects are tolerably grim as usual. This, of course, brings to mind the volatile cultural and economic changes we are living with but let’s not go there quite yet.

I mentioned to Denise that I was going to the Poets & Writers event up the street the next day. Denise mentioned that Modern Times is hoping to find a coalition of public and private support to continue playing its role as a purveyor of books geared to left and progressive sensibilities. I thought that maybe one of the panels dedicated to talk about community and support might touch on this issue but I did not formulate any plan to bring it up. I just sort of thought it would be an obvious issue. That’s not so smart, really, but it’s the truth.

So, Poets and Writers magazine is sort of the main trade magazine for graduates of writing MFA programs. I have come to love Poets and Writers magazine, actually, despite occasional exasperation at its quiet tone. It lists all the major literary competitions and who won them, as well as all the upcoming submissions deadlines for writers hoping to have their work accepted by journals. This is indispensable career intelligence. Its articles, to my mind, are a bit mild. But as I said, I burn with impatience and long to read mad, hallucinatory, transcendent voices.

This matter of taste is not evident always in my role as an advice columnist, though I have used the column as a platform to soar when possible. Nor is the fiction and poetry I write openly “political.” Yet it has always been difficult for me to sit in a room full of writers talking about process and not feel like screaming. Especially those writers who have prestigious degrees, awards and publishing arrangements. So it was difficult to sit in the Brava Theater and listen complacently.  Yet I lacked the courage to ask those questions I considered important. I thought it was more important to behave, to try to be an adult about it.

Kevin Larimer, editor in chief of Poets and Writers, opened the event by introducing former poet laureate Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was charming and her poems were enjoyable. But neither mentioned recent events in Paris that have rocked the world.

I should have stood up and said, What about the 12 murdered cartoonists in Paris? Can we have a moment of silence?

But, timid, half-asleep me, being a good student, I sat quietly in the balcony, remembering the early 1980s when Laurie Parker (who went on to become a movie producer!) and her sister, who worked there and always carried sandwiches, would let us in to the York Theater and we would smoke cigarettes in the balcony and watch  matinees.

I sat up there in that same balcony, enjoying Ryan’s poems and reminiscing sleepily. And the whole idea of writers’ roles in the larger society, the immediacy of it and its omnipresence — the fact that it’s not a writer’s role sometimes and not other times but all the time —  got away from me. I never spoke up or even raised my hand. I just kinda went with the program

To be fair, it was a beautifully run event in terms of efficiency, the politeness and well-behaved nature of the audience, the sticking to times, and the focus. Any political discussion would have been, in this setting, a disruption. Yet disruption is necessary at times. That is what writers are supposed to do, isn’t it? To disrupt? To speak the disruptive truth? To hurl insults from the balcony at power?

It was surprising that no one stood up and gave a speech or hurled insults, or cried or shouted.  Isn’t this crazy San Francisco? Maybe the $100 price tag kept out all but the most determined, commercially minded, career-oriented young fiction writers and poets? Anyway, I felt out of place in the  well-behaved crowd. Of course, if one feels generally out of place anyway, that’s part of it. But here is my beef:

I believe at gatherings of writers that some mention ought always be made of the larger global political context in which we work. Is this an outdated expectation? Perhaps the Poets and Writers staff discussed whether to mention the slaughter of 12 cartoonists in a Paris office building less than a week ago and decided to avoid getting sidetracked? It’s possible. This is not a reported piece so I haven’t asked them. Anyway I sat through the three morning panels,  skipped the first two after-lunch panels and returned for the last panel with Joyce Carol Oates, which involved Oates reading a poem that has been published in the New Yorker, musician Ben Arthur playing and singing an “answer” to that same poem, then a film using the poem as a leaping off point and then a dance performance, or maybe the other way around.

I had stopped listening and was scribbling away in my notebook, defensively.  That was interesting: That my creating is sometimes a defensive move, a way to reclaim creative space in response to the creations of others. Like I did as a kid!

Also had major realization about songwriting: need to jump in passionately again. So it was useful in that way. As to taste, I guess I just didn’t get it.

What’s not just a question of personal taste is this:

What customary obligation obtains for prestigious publications for writers to make space for vital political matters?

Is it not heartening at gatherings of poets to hear at least a token acknowledgement of world events that affect us? Does it not reaffirm a crucial truth? I think it a custom worth upholding. It says, to the uninitiated, that those of us who write recognize our global role, our responsibility to speak on behalf of others. And it reminds those of us involved in the daily practice that we are indeed doing it in a larger context.

As I was walking to the cafe this morning thinking about this, and the possible reasons no mention was made of the Paris murders, which are so in my mind and in the minds of commentators, I thought of the years that financial difficulties brought me to work for  one of the world’s largest oil companies. One of the things that shocked me, and left me feeling I’d been naive, was the unspoken assumption that what went on inside that building had no connection to what went on in the streets outside. When protests occurred outside the building directly targeting the company’s practices, it seemed that we ought to acknowledge and discuss the matter, and that the company ought to make some kind of explicit statement of its position. Instead there was silence. The message was that we completely ignore the world outside.

This is the corporate way. In the interest of efficient running, the keeping of timetables, corporate workers ignore “outside matters” and stick to what is functional: getting it done on time, sticking to the schedule. It allows corporations to ignore crucial issues and I think it’s a bad way to run a company.

I expected that a gathering of avowedly creative people would be different, more chaotic, more charged with energy. By the end I felt like a squirming teenager, eager to get out into the fresh air, wanting to shout, to rock and roll, to drive fast, to shout insults at those who had held me captive and whose placidity seemed to gain them the rewards we all wanted: the acclaim, the position, the security and acceptance.

It was an interesting moment. Then it ended. I went downstairs, ate one cheddar cheese square in the lobby “mixer,” I gathered up the remainder of my printed marketing materials, and fled into the fresh night air of 24th Street for a quesadilla suiza at El Farolito.

I Tweeted a little bit about this this morning. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about this.

For I am in a position full of contradiction. As I rail against the institutions I am at the same time courting them. I am diligently attempting to master the art of applying for fellowships and grants, submitting my work to journals and contests, writing queries and pitches.

That is why, actually, I so appreciated Kay Ryan’s quip about not being a joiner and assiduously avoiding such events as the one for which she was presently delivering the keynote. “Even a writer who doesn’t come to these things and loathes the whole enterprise still wants to know that they exist — that there is still a community to disdain.”

We all laughed. But no one said anything more about the contradiction, about our own, personal disdain for the messy and irritating job of self-promotion. It all went on in the background, all these ideas — how the democracy and freedom that allow us this privilege are being eroded, how the bookstores that were our lifeblood of community are threatened by economic change, etc.

And what was I there for in the end? Talk about contradictions. The $100 I spent to attend the Poets and Writers Live event was a business marketing expense. Leaving cards and fliers all up and down 24th Street was a marketing activity.

Although, to be fair to myself: I also attended as a matter of conscience and identity, as a writer of fiction and poetry interested in having my work read more widely.

It’s just a shame there was no  Jack Hirschman ranting in the lobby.

Does anyone else feel as I did — that there are some matters of soul, of conscience, that are present always and always ought to be voiced?