Pushcart XLI: Why Bother?

"Lost (albeit in a good book)" – anonymous Scottish bookartist

“Lost (albeit in a good book)” – anonymous Scottish bookartist

Every small press writer and editor knows the question: In the age of instant info, twenty-four hour entertainment, political blowhards and gigantic atrocities, isn’t there something better I should be doing with my life than struggling to create authentic and honest art?

~~Bill Henderson, Introduction

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting back into the groove. That’s partly because this time of year is always unmoored by structure – in between moocs at the moment, in between readings, shakily navigating the two weeks when everything’s on hiatus for special holiday celebrations – but it’s mostly because the events past two months have left me with a dismal view of what lies ahead. Why bother with anything as frivolous as reading, contemplating, and blogging creative work?

Bill Henderson finds his answer to the question in the unidirectional persistence of writer Wendell Berry. I found a different source: San Francisco artist and Stanford lecturer Jenny Odell, whose advice to her Stanford students was retweeted into my feed a few days ago:

I may have mentioned before that I and other artists I know were unsure of what to do with ourselves after the election. We felt like what we were doing was trivial and meaningless compared to more direct political action. But in thinking about this incident, the reactions to it, and the larger situation it points to, I’ve come back around. As you leave this class, I want you to consider that making art and consuming art are in themselves political acts. By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not “productive” in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.

~~ Jenny Odell

I wouldn’t presume to call anything I do here “art”, but I’d like to think my efforts contribute to some part of what is meaningful yet unmeasurable. I know what I do here has value for me; I’d like to think it occasionally has value for someone else, in that, for the past several years, I have focused more upon my reaction to a piece than on analyzing the literary technique, trying to model what it is to read for oneself, for understanding and enjoyment rather than for a grade.

Literature does not have to stay stuck in classrooms. Literature is not meant to be something taught to us by someone who “knows” what it means; it’s meant to be explored and discovered in a personal way. If I find something in a story or poem that elicits a memory, yet I can’t explain why I was moved (as happens at least a few times in every anthology), that has as much value to me – perhaps more – as the story that clearly demonstrates perfect five-part structure or outstanding mirror characters or sophisticated symbolism. I’m not reading to pass a test here; I’m reading for my life, just to read, and react, and understand and grow.

"Lifeline" Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

“Lifeline” Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

A few years ago, I came across a semi-surreal short story by Australian writer David Brooks (not the American journalist) titled “Blue”. I wish it was available online; I found it in the 1989 edition of Sudden Fiction International. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, as it starts in “a summer of fires and shark attacks” and shows how people work through, are driven by an inner need felt but not understood, to work through a drought. The story, just a couple of pages long, ends with a phrase that reduces me to tears every time I read it: “And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been.”

I expect we will all be terribly, terribly thirsty in the coming seasons. We will all find our ways to work through it, whether it be Wendell Berry or the words of an artist or blogging about contemporary literature and moocs or direct political action or following a snarky medievalist on Twitter or all of the above, and it all shows who we are and what we believe. So I head into Pushcart, not wanting to declare what is good and bad, but looking for new ways to read poetry and nonfiction, looking for new understandings and viewpoints that will show me, show anyone who looks, where the water can be found.

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3 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Why Bother?

  1. Blue

    The rain itself was never properly reported. The editor and staff of the local paper were away at a weekend conference in the capital, and, although the evidence was everywhere, all of us were somehow impressed into relative silence by the majesty of the event. And who, anyway, would have believed it? When asked later what had led to their strange preparations, those who would talk at all spoke of a recurring sensation in the nose and sinuses as if of the ozone after rain, or of a feeling under the tongue as of that left by a bursting cardamom. This reply, while true enough, was usually sufficient to deflect an idle curiosity, though in truth it was the dreams that started us. Not prophetic dreams exactly, and none of us could really say how we got from them the sense that all our floors and our belongings should be bared. One dreamed that he was bathing in an open cage, the swallows darting around him as he scrubbed. Another dreamed of crossing a high, wooden balcony with her lover, and seeing at the other end two women standing in mannequin postures, looking out to sea, their pale green dresses ragged and their long hair bleached in the sun. Another, my brother, dreamed of receiving a long-awaited letter, and taking it to a huge bay window. He smoothed out the great, blank page at the table and tears came to his eyes as he read it, again and again with rapture.
    How so many could have interpreted such diverse things in so similar a way I cannot tell. Perhaps the sight or rumor of what others were doing influenced their understandings; perhaps there were dimensions to these signs and portents that none could detect or consciously register. Whatever it was, in Vin-centia, in St. Mary’s, in Albatross and Mooney Creek and all the small hamlets in between, on hillsides, on neighboring streets, on curves of the highway, roofs came off the houses, the panellings of weatherboard and fibro left the walls, and here a man could be seen showering in a cage of two-by-fours, there a family could be seen in their lounge-room watching the sky over their television, in the manse at Albatross the housekeeper could be seen through the gaps in the bookshelf she was cleaning, staring across to where the SP bookie was tearing the paper from his shopfront, digging away at the putty of the windows, and from the first stirrings of this strange exposure, just after six on Friday, to the time of the shower on Sunday evening, people all down The Head began living out-of-doors in the comfort of their own carpeted rooms, sitting up late by unsea-sonal hearth fires, making toast as they had once done as children while all the stars of the southern hemisphere attended. True enough, we laughed at ourselves, but we sat there just the same, rugged against the cool night air, listening to the possums, yarning as we hadn’t since our honeymoons.
    And at last it came by the bucketful. A short, torrential pour which none could have predicted and which all, mysteriously, recognized as the only true and likely culmination of those strange three days of air and light. Children ran about with buckets, the young people danced, and we who are older just sat in a mute amazement: a short, sharp burst of blue carnations, tiny blooms like great, sky-petalled snowflakes in the evening dust. And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been, and we sat there or sang in the phenomenal rain, and something deep within us was drinking, every stem, every petal, every tiny, perfect flower, slaking, in that long, imperfect summer, a deep, deep need for miracles, for something a little more than rain.

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