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.
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.