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?


Imagine my idiot surprise

Indeed, imagine my idiot surprise that French people talking about Jack Kerouac in Paris would be talking about him in French! Imagine my idiot surprise that French is really such a completely different language from English that whatever they’re saying about Jack Kerouac is impossible to understand even with hand gestures and changes in posture and tone of voice! Imagine that the biggest idiot ever comes to Paris for Festival America and doesn’t really get it that these are French people sharing their interest in North American writing and culture (especially Native Americans and the West) in French!

Imagine. My French sucks. I had two years in college. I love the language but am kind enough not to speak it. Unlike some doofusses on stage who even though they can speak it hurt my ears and I’m not even a French speaking person. La meme chose indeed.

Imagine also that I am trembling in the bakery, frozen, paralyzed, sweating, about to turn and run down the street because each loaf has a  signpost stuck on it with “price per piece’ and “price per kilo” or something, I can’t even figure it out because my French-speaking wife is in Innsbruck visiting her aunt and I always just thought price per loaf.

But anyway. About that time it occurred to me that … have you ever read the book Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer? It’s all about him not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence? It occurred to me, as I was eating chocolate-covered butter cookies in room 303 of the Hotel Blason above the bar/cafe at Avenue de Paris and rue de Montreuil that I just might spend my whole three days of Festival America eating cookies in my room and wondering how much the bread costs.

But I got out. I went to the Kerouac worship service in the Auditorium Ernest Hemingway at Coeur de Ville in Vincennes. Took some notes in my notebook standing outside the door waiting for the service to begin. The previous service consisted of a movie. So we’re outside the door watching a video screen showing the movie being played inside; it’s not the movie; it’s a camera shot of the stage where the movie is playing, so in our version there are sofas and a coffee table below the movie; it’s like a cheap pirate video but there’s Lawrence Ferlenghetti talking about North Beach! and a photo of Kerouac with his hair all wet maybe from the ocean or maybe he just got out of the shower or he’s just really sweaty from having sex and my, what a head of hair, this was the early days and then a shot of the Pacific beach, a wave crashing, and my heart leaps: Here I am in Paris and they’re looking at a movie of my home town! Or the place I emigrated to on a Gray Rabbit bus from New York in 1976. This Pacific. These rocks. This is my California which Paris celebrates in a bright marble-floored heart with steel roof supports (I-beams bent like bird wings) and someone with a black T-shirt with all the names of the authors at Festival America materializes in front of me and she has a lanyard and je regrette! I could have applied as a blogger and been on the inside! But then I would have to write something and nah. Not going to write anything. And then there is beareded Ginsburg in white button-down shirt before a window and then the pudgy face of later Kerouac older scowling smoking with thinning hair, sitting by a trap set in an arm chair on black and white television his cheeks fat his neck bloated then saxophone music in After-Midnight-esque style, then some America-style poverty-porn “Salvage” wall urban poor romantic in black and white and it occurs to me that we are watching the film we are missing, which is some kind of metaphor. Jack K. shielding his eyes in spotlight at microphone with manuscript held before his face, then tubby in T-shirt sitting scowling again like he missed a bus, then him with his mom in St. Pete and yep, he probably did miss a bus! Then Ferlinghetti in denim shirt, crumpled hat/white beard before a bookcase …

The audience was 80 percent women. The presenters were 80 percent men. Nothing new there, just noticing.

So look. I love these guys. It’s what I came to SF for. It’s just odd to see it worshiped in Paris. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s odd.

Kerouac. Carver. Salinger. They’re the three great American authors being celebrated here. I can’t understand what they’re saying about them, of course, because my French is too terrible.

I meat Jesmyn Ward. She’s not crazy about her own mastery of the great French language either.

Having a great time, wish you were here, much more to come.–CT

Eating cookies in my underwear

There are many things to do in Paris. Many things people do in Paris not fully dressed. One of the best things to do in Paris is to eat cookies not fully dressed. These cookies have chocolate on the top but underneath are just butter. It’s butter and chocolate. Outside the sun is bright and cars are going by. There is much driving in Paris. If you attempt to drive a car into Paris and then return it to, say, an office of Europcar, you may find, first, that driving all the way out to the airport named for Charles de Gaulle might not be the best way. You might want to return it at the office of Europcar located at 60 rue Diderot right there in Paris not far from where you are planning to eat cookies in your underwear once all this is taken care of, the moving of the car, the surrendering of the car to its owners who you wish would just act a tad more grateful when they receive it for after all you have gone to the trouble of returning it. So you might find that the offices at 60 Diderot actually can’t take the car for reasons having to do with the fact that this is their last day of operation, ever. No problem. Standing at the desk, having already … well, never mind about that, never mind about how I almost saw a tear come to the eye of the sad receptionist who could not receive my car because an aura of office-death hung in the air (there must be a French phrase for that) but I have to tell you about the narrow crevice through which I squeezed the hybrid Yaris in order to go up three floors of a mysterious and quiet garage only to find that you can’t return the Yaris here, you have to go to 193 some other rue near the Gare de Lyon. Which it turns out having arrived at last night you could have just dropped the car off at the Europcar location last night and not driven it all around Paris all night before serendipitously finding a parking spot right outside your hotel except that you’re carrying your wife’s luggage too, so that wouldn’t have worked, actually, since she’s gone off to Innsbruck to see Aunt Marianna … (why the italics? Have you ever found that you start off with italics for some reason of emphasis you can’t even remember anymore and then just keep going like a terribly acute yawn or a fit of laughing and you just have to eventually stop the italics and go bold until even that get ridiculous and finally finally finally you’re back to roman? Ever happen to you? And furthermore where is that close parenthesis? Can I just close it here? I guess so))))) (more parens for emphasis!!!))) Anyway so the other place at 193 rue something-or-other near Gare de Lyon where the lady at 60 rue Diderot told me to return the car because, so sad, so very very sad! their office was closing forever tomorrow!!! just wasn’t at all visible from the street so I went in their parking garage and there was Avis and there was Budget and maybe one or two others but no Europcar. So then I couldn’t just drive out of their parking garage but had to pay for parking even though I didn’t park because it was a parking garage and the only way out was to exit as if you had parked there.

My wife, Norma, says I don’t lose my cool easily and I seem to accept the conditions of Parisian driving with preternatural calm. This is true. I am just an observer in these transactions. I myself observe myself observing how very calm I am when coming to understand that there is no place to put the car I am returning to Europcar. Then I get lost. I come out of the wrong garage at the wrong exit and am suddenly flying down some Parisian street in a squadron of motorcycles and scooters and that takes some time to find a place to pull over and I find somehow I’m way over by the Seine, which is a lovely river and no one should speak ill of it but it’s just not helping right now because the Yaris has to go back to its owner. So then I think OK let’s reroute with the help of the map person inside the iPhone and we make a new route which I am following until we turn down this street and there’s a garbage truck in the middle of the street collecting garbage. So that took about one inning. One of those innings where they have to dust the ball off a lot and lo0k at some replays. About that period of time basically. And then I come around again and sure enough I’m at 193 what’s-that-street-called and there’s no green Europcar sign. So then I realize that they’ve hidden it. Perhaps there is some shame involved, or just shyness. But shyness does not seem very French. Perhaps Europcar is not French. Perhaps it’s Belgian and has a complex. It is located like a cosmetics store might be located, up some stairs, down a concourse, or maybe like a toy store but not a place into which one must drive because the product of the place is a car which one must drive on streets and cannot bring into the building like a set of Legos or a compact. Anyway I think I get the picture. It’s like this for a reason. Oh, and by the way, before this happened I wandered into the Europcar location at the first place and found an office and there were like two people there, in offices, looking at spreadsheets. One of them spoke “a bit” of English. Merci.

Well, anyway, then I thought, having found the second Euopcar office at 193 what’s-its-street/rue/bd I realized I really shouldn’t leave the car with its flashers going right out on the street there in a not-parking place. So I drove it into the parking garage to park it while I transact my simple but urgent business upstairs. And what do I find in this parking garage? It’s the Europcar place. They keep that a secret but if you go and park your car, not looking for the rental return, you will find the Europcar rental return. You have to just not be looking for it. You have to be already so driven to distraction that you’re willing to park it in a garage and pay good euros for the privilege and basically have reached such a state of sublime gallic shrugnicity that you really don’t even care if it … which if you are paying attention is exactly the shape that enlightenment takes, i.e. reaching a point of such frustration that you really don’t give a shit and then Buddha appears and offers you some nice chocolate cookies and doesn’t even mention that you’re in your underwear.

And you’re not even having other coincidental thoughts such as …

did you remember to fill up the tank. Which you didn’t because in deciding not to drive all the way out to CDG you were so filled with a sense of wonder  at the possibility of delivering the car right in Paris, just a few blocks away!!! that all sense went out of you.

So the car is delivered. And then riding the 1 Metro from Gare de Lyon to the Chateau Vincennes was a cinch. Except for just a couple of things right in the station related to buying the ticket. A lot of tourists must come straight to Paris from pig farms. They don’t know how to put coins in a machine to get a ticket for the Metro. But I have amazing patience and used the time to contemplate exactly how I would slide my coins in, and in what order.

So here is this thought I had:

I must not be a genius. That was my thought. Because if I were a genius I would think all these things through really quickly and I would use game theory and attack the problem from several angles simultaneously and I would draw on all the patterns of human thought and action I have observed over my many years and I would see very quickly, before we even drove to Paris, that if I really think hard about this, we will realize that Norma doesn’t have to take a train to Paris from Champtocé-sur-Loire because I’m driving to Paris anyway! Now, there was a lot of planning that went into this trip and circumstances changed and we just didn’t evaluate all the ways that the changing circumstances created new opportunities. That must be what generals and billionaires and despots do. They must be always always always thinking about every little changed circumstance and how it gives them an advantage. I just don’t pay that much attention. If I were a genius I’d probably never end up going Doh! and slapping my forehead when we do things like fail to realize until the last day of the retreat, until I’m practically ready to deliver Norma up to the train station at Angers, that she doesn’t need to take a train to Paris because I’m driving there anyway! (Originally I was going to stay in Champtocé-sur-Loire for a few days to write while she went to Innsbruck. And then I realized that Festival America was taking place in Paris and wouldn’t that be cool?)

So registering for that was a whole other thing involving my not being able to speak good French. They’re honoring American and Canadian authors and stuff, but I don’t think the main thing they’re interested in is the fact that they all wrote really good in English. It’s more all stuff read in translation. Maybe some of the translations are better in French. Anyway, I got the tickets after returning the rental car (only 15 euros for all three days!) and was walking back to my hotel room where the band downstairs in the bar was playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” last night which I enjoyed very much before lugging my two huge suitcases up three flights of stairs (room trois cent trois, and what, monsieur, is this thing you are calling an “elevator”?) … after which, all of that, today, a few moments ago, I luxuriated in a very powerful stream of hot shower water for more time in the shower than one would spend in San Francisco’s drought, and then I found the cookies. We had packed a bag with all the leftover food from the chateau and there in the bag were Sablés nappés; Chocolate noir. Pur beurre.

I just happened to be in my underwear.

That’s how travel happens.

I’ll let you know if any really bright authors say any really dumb things.

Time to ban “love locks” on Paris bridges

When I first saw “love locks” on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, they seemed like a charming folk expression. The metaphor of a lock on a bridge! Symbolizing lovers’ devotion! It spoke to the heart and the mind: transition, a liminal state, a gap between two certainties; a thing as ephemeral as love held firm in the cold steel of a lock. And an ordinary lock like from the hardware store. Lovers write their message of mutual devotion on the lock (initials, names, a pledge forever), attach the lock to the bridge, and throw the key in the water. Is that not beautiful?

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

And what of bridges? Bridges span two states — as love does. Bridges enable transition. They  allow one to exist for a time apart, in that liminal zone, belonging to neither side. For certain types of people, or people in certain situations feeling hemmed in by society or by geography, being on a bridge can bring peace. It can be the only place one feels at home. Artists know this well. We gravitate toward the in-between. Lovers too.

A bridge isn’t a place but a movement between spaces, an occasion of strange freedom.

So I was moved by the sight of these emblems of devotion placed in such a charged space.

But then the practice of placing love locks on bridges went viral; vendors on Paris bridges began selling the locks; they proliferated like cancer cells; their sheer weight collapsed a railing on the Pont des Arts. The lovely virus, when it took physical form, became a cancer that destroys its host.

So let’s say goodbye to this charming practice for now.

We all want to visit beautiful places, and Paris is certainly beautiful, and we all want to leave something of ourselves behind, and we all want to inscribe on the world our fleeting love.

But let’s not destroy stuff in the process.

Much might be said about the tourist culture, another kind of metastisis that thinks everything in sight is something to be consumed or interacted with, that assumes everywhere is Disneyland, and all culture is for sale, and the culture of imitation and “trends” …

But let’s not start any fights.

I am in favor of a ban on placing love locks on urban bridges. Vendors can switch to sunglasses or T-shirts.

You can sign a petition here.

p.s. Join us at le Château du Pin in the Loire Valley in September for our week-long writing retreat.