The Forehead Egg, Biopolitics, Disability

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right.

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant.

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized.

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today. I like the eggs. Yeah you can call me Estragon.

 

 

 

Elegy for Pentti Saarikoski

Like many poets I wake thinking of delicate things, some apparent, others abstract. I think of Wallace Stevens “planet on a table”—the world we must make each day, and then I smell the  sweet ripening apples outside my bedroom window. I rise, feed my dogs, brew coffee, check the news hoping for breakthroughs in international understanding, put on my rough shoes and walk into the still morning. I’ll make something of this. Put on my little “peace hat” and pepper the aborning hour with words—names—Isaac Bashevis Singer, entelechy, sea cucumber, yellow mittens, mother-world. No one is about in my neighborhood. No one’s awake. The houses are all buttoned, windows dark. My feet love the wet road. I think I need to pardon my youth. I hear the Phoebe bird. The age I live in has a dark taste. I’m seldom prone to this but I do sometimes wish I was a bird.

 

But I Can’t

Some mornings I need tenderness, tendre—just to make clear: “soft, easily injured,” early 13c., from Old French tendre “soft, delicate; young” (11c.), from Latin tenerem (nominative tener) “soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful,” from a derivative of PIE root *ten- “to stretch,” on the notion of “stretched,” hence “thin,” hence “weak” or “young.” Compare Sanskrit tarunah “young, tender,” Greek teren “tender, delicate,” Armenian t’arm “young, fresh, green.”

Meaning “kind, affectionate, loving” first recorded early 14c. Meaning “having the delicacy of youth, immature” is attested in English from early 14c. Related: Tenderly; tenderness. Tender-hearted first recorded 1530s. 

See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=Tenderness

**

Early today I required Auden:

“But I Can’t”

Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,

If we should stumble when musicians play,

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,

Because I love you more than I can say,

If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,

The vision seriously intends to stay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,

And all the brooks and soldiers run away;

Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

October 1940

Excerpt From: “Selected Poems.” iBooks.

**

When a human soul is bruised but not yet crushed, a man, woman, or child often senses a green bleed beneath the skin of mind, as if a coin has fallen through blood with its promise of luck deferred. Oh we didn’t receive our due, but “the vision seriously intends to stay”—life works just this way. If I could tell you I would let you know.

I Have Written a Dog Book and I May Be a Better Person For It

I have written a dog book. What a strange sentence!

Why is this strange? Well for one thing, I owe my life to successive guide dogs who, each and every one, was brilliant and mysterious. As I began the book I imagined with all due humility that writing about guide dogs might be beyond me.

Yes, I’ve written a dog book. I had to grow in order to manage it.

The book, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster next April is called Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador

Why did I have to grow?

Because like many memoirists I’m pretty good talking about myself but weak when it comes to understanding others. And then, well, what do you do when “the other” is a dog?

What do you do when your teacher is a dog?

First: admit your teacher is a dog.

Next: recognize dogs don’t think like us. They’re loving and instinctive, patient but sweetly detached from our cloying egos.

My first guide dog Corky, a yellow Lab smiled a lot. She smiled whenever strangers approached, even the vaguely medieval ones who had superstition on their minds.

From the book:

The two of us were unconditionally stirring to strangers. Sometimes we were approached by doe eyed holy roller types—people who’d grown up watching Jerry Lewis telethons, who’d absorbed a thousand sermons about the blind, who need the grace of God—wanting to touch us, pray for us, or at the very least, tell us how uplifting we were. Riding a bus from Ithaca to Geneva, and feeling good, Corky tucked under the seat, a woman seated across from us said: “You and your dog just gave me some Jesus!” I was crippled Tim, a vision of Christ’s mercy. 

These benedictions occurred so often I started worrying about it. When would it occur? On a bus in Ithaca a woman said loudly: “Can I pray for you?” I couldn’t help myself and replied: “Yes, Madam, you may pray for me, but only if together, you and I, raise our prayers for all the good people on this bus who have trouble brewing inside, their cancers aborning even as we speak, whose children have gone astray through substance abuse, people who even now feel lost in a sea of troubles, let us pray, all together for our universal salvation.” I clutched her arm with feverish intensity. The bus pulled to a routine stop and she jumped out the door. Passengers applauded. “Don’t take it personally,” a woman said to me then. I smiled. But how else to take it?

I asked Edward, an Episcopal priest who I met in a coffee shop what he thought of the public Jesus complex as I’d come to call it. We sat on a park bench drinking coffee out of paper cups, Corky chewing on a bone at our feet.

“Many Christians don’t like the body,” he said. “That’s how they understand the crucifixion. They think the body is the throw away part of Christ. And of course that’s entirely wrong: the body of Jesus is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: the living temple of God and of the new humanity.

“In effect,” he said, “every body is the body of Jesus. Which means each body, broken or not is a true body, imbued with spirit, and not a sign of want. There’s a beauty to the diversity in the body of Christ.”

“So why do I meet so many predatory prayer slingers who want to mumble over me?” I asked.

“The insecure ye will always have with ye…” Edward said.

 

When she first entered my life I knew Corky would help me in traffic but I had no idea she’d teach me to be kind in an open and ironic way. By this I mean she gave me distance from whatever it is we mean by the self. With a service dog by my side 24-7 I learned to drift above the two of us in disembodied fancies—I could look down on whatever scene we found ourselves in and often, because of this altered state I would become larger than my habitual persona.

From the book:

I walked into a mega-computer store on Sixth Avenue. I wanted to purchase a laptop pc. As we pushed through the door a security guard put his hand on my chest. “You no come in, no dog,” he said. 

I pressed forward and the guard stepped back. “Stop! Stop!” he shouted and waved his arms. Customers stared. 

My civil rights and the security guard’s dignity were equally delicate. I didn’t know where the guard came from, but his accent sounded East African. How could he possibly know anything about guide dogs? The store’s managers hadn’t given him information. All he knew was “no dogs allowed” and there I was with a big assed dog. As we stood in the doorway I figured it would be my job to foster dignity for both of us. They hadn’t taught me this at Guiding Eyes; they’d given me a booklet with access laws—a useful thing–I had the right to go anywhere the public went—but no one had mentioned emotional intelligence or how to engage in public mediation. 

I made Corky sit. “Listen,” I said, softly, “get the manager. This will be okay.” “This is a special dog for the blind.” I wanted to turn our misunderstanding into something respectful. 

The manager was one of those guys you see all the time in big city stores: sadder than his customers, red faced and put upon. He had a scoured toughness. He approached and began shouting at the guard. “Its a seeing-eye dog for god’s sake!” “Let him in!” “Sorry, sorry!” 

 

My fight or flee rush was subsiding—I wanted all three of us to experience kindness.   

I was in a Manhattan electronics store and dignity was in peril. It would have been easy to say “fuck it” and look out for myself alone. I’d gotten into the store. I was angry. I could have pitched a fit. But I didn’t feel like doing that. The guard’s name was Ekwueme. My name was Stephen. The manager’s name was Phil. “Listen,” I said, “dogs for the blind are not common, you don’t see them every day. This is Corky. She’s very smart.” I let my voice become soft. Ekwueme and Phil both petted Corky. A customer approached, said: “I’ve raised puppies for the guide dog school! Best dogs in the world!” Phil seemed suddenly pleased, as if he too was philanthropic, or could be some day. Ekwueme admitted he loved dogs.

Outside with a computer under my arm I reckoned life with Corky was more complex than just a story of freedom. Ekwueme and Phil would become legion in my travels but I didn’t know it yet. What I did know was reflected in a quote I’d always liked from Martin Luther King: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I sensed that having a service dog meant something more than honoring my own rights.  

“Take the first step in faith,” said Dr. King. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

When you travel all the time with a dog you are changed by the experience. I became more patient, deliberative, not perfect, but slower to burn, better able to think without the baggage of my former life, the one without the dog, the life when I was without a curious and engaging intelligence beside me always.

From the book:

In a diner on lower Broadway, a man, disheveled and clattering, someone the locals seemed to know, wandered from table to table interrupting breakfasters, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the brains of strangers. He called a cop “Porky” and an elderly woman “Grandma” as he lurched steadily toward me. “Oh Doggy!” he said. “Doggy doggy doggy!”

Then he said, “What kind of fucking person are you?”

I tried my best Robert deNiro impression: “Are you talking to ME?”

He wasn’t amused.

“A prisoner!” he shouted, for the whole diner was his stage. “This dog’s a prisoner!”

For a moment I felt the rising heat of embarrassment and rejection. Then, as he repeated my dog was a slave, I softened. In a moment of probable combat I stepped far back inside myself, not because I had to, but how to say it? Corky was unruffled. She actually nuzzled my leg. The nuzzle went up my torso, passed through my neck, went straight for the amygdala.

I smiled then. I said, “You’re right. And I’m a prisoner too.”

I don’t know if it was my smile, or agreement that did the trick, but he backed up, turned, and walked out the door. Strangers applauded.

I’d beaten a lifetime of bad habits. I hadn’t fallen into panic, or rage, or felt a demand to flee.

I sat at the counter, tucked Corky safely out of the way of walking customers, and ordered some eggs. I daydreamed over coffee.

When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just deserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.

Perhaps I thought, there in the diner, I could live in a new and more flexible way.

“Is it as simple as this?” I thought. “One simply decides to breathe differently.”

I saw, in a way, it was that simple.

Saw also how a dog can be your teacher. And while eating wheat toast I thought of the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada:

Live in Joy, In love,

Even among those who hate.

Live in joy, In health,

Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy, In peace,

Even among the troubled.

Look within. Be still.

Free from fear and attachment,

Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

 

   

The Essay Has Never Been Healthier

“Without education,” wrote Chesterton, “we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” If you fancy a dull trudge affecting to defend the literary essay you’re in luck: see rebarbative and stodgy William Deresciewicz in the latest Atlantic. Though it’s not easy some writers can be unattractive and dull simultaneously and Deresciewicz, since his early retirement from Yale, has made a career of it.

Defending the essay is unnecessary: the art is broad, muscular, and in good health. Still Deresciewicz can’t resist. His Atlantic piece is turgid, silly, and vain but he thinks he’s guarding “the essay” from the unwashed. Accordingly he pretends to aim high while pointing his arrows low. For this there’s nothing better than fustian prose. Here’s his opening:

John D’ Agata has accomplished an impressive feat. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre. And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.

Of John D’Agata we shall have more to say presently, but note straight off Deresciewicz’s three strands of bombast: false praise, (sentence one); faux incisiveness (sentence two, sophomoric as it is); and manifest sophistry (wink, wink, effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far…).

This is prime Deresciewicz. There’s deceit in the land and it’s occurring at the very best universities, right now, under your nose and you can trust him as he’s abandoned his suspect, icky job at Yale to be, well, a big time prevaricator—which, while you may not know it, comes from the Latin praevaricat “to walk crookedly” but of this he’ll have nothing to say.

Deresciewicz’s golden calf is his noisome antipathy to professors. It’s a living. But one thinks of Truman Capote’s assertion: “I like to talk on TV about those things that aren’t worth writing about.”

John D’Agata is a poet and essayist who earned notoriety (in the provincial way of American letters) when he wrote a book about Las Vegas wherein he uncovered the manifold ironies and tragedies of the Entertainment Capital of the World, Sin City, the City of Lights, Glitter Gulch—and neighbor to Yucca Mountain. Vegas is a vast, grim palimpsest and D’Agata aimed to reveal it with prose at once factual and impressionistic. The latter put D’Agata in the crosshairs of the Joe Friday Squad of nonfiction writers and critics—“just the facts m’am”—“this is reality we’re talkin’ ‘bout!”—“and by God don’t confuse us with colors and fancies!” In fairness to D’Agata he blends facts with fictions—the latter intended to flesh out what isn’t knowable—rendered as a matter of speculation. He tells his readers as much. Still, nonfiction is thought by some to be journalism just as journalism is imagined a stepchild of photography. “Give us facts and more facts! We’re hungry! Num num num!”

In the Vegas book D’Agata plays with chronology while telling the story of a young man’s suicide—injecting an imaginary sequence of circumstances into a verifiable and tragic incident. This was a red flag to the Joe Friday squad and the resulting brouhaha spread across both the blogosphere and whatever still passes for trenchant journals. The matter came to light when  D’Agata and his fact checker engaged in a public war of words about the relative value or the lack thereof of facts in essays and nonfiction.

In Nonfiction Land defending the impressionistic, the fanciful, the subjective is risky, though it shouldn’t be, since Montaigne, the grandfather of the essay, was a splendid writer of fancies. Essentially the essay became a delivery system for facts and factoids in the 20th century and D’Agata’s goal (one I share) has been to lend nonfiction—return it—to a high romantic (small r) sense of poetic possibility.

It’s easy to make enemies in literary circles of course, and even easier to make them if one adopts an outlier’s position, which of course John D’Agata has. One would never know from Deresewiecz scree that literary nonfiction has bloomed in our time; that richly imaginative practitioners are stretching forms; that this work is superb and not at all invidious. One is free to not like the lyric impulse in nonfiction. Taste is a matter we should never treat lightly. I for instance dislike tight little formalist poems about sexual dysfunction and accordingly I don’t believe Philip Larkin is worth a second read. This is merely taste. Mine.

Second rate writers imagine poetry or nonfiction or the novel as real estate. They have theirs. It’s all they’re interested in. I don’t remember the lines precisely, but the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote something like: “people who live in houses in fog on the hillside think the whole world is covered in fog.” So it is with both aesthetics and politics.

The literary essay is not harmed by poetry anymore than the novel is damaged by science fiction or a cookbook by personal narrative. But in Deresewiecz’s view there’s something nasty in the woodshed. Them faculty types are once again doing something invidious over thar in the groves of academe. This is of course piffle.

Should nonfiction be factual? Of course. Should it have room for poetry and divagation? Of course. Can we imagine readers who make artful choices? Of course. Which is the problem ultimately with the Joe Friday Squad: they’re enforcers but so very refined. For the JFS crowd literary essays should always be like table settings at the Four Seasons. You’d better know which fork is which and what it’s used for—and thank god there’s an essayist who’ll tell you!

John D’Agata is febrile and wholly unapologetic in his defense of subjectivity and impressionism, arguing the essayist can in fact capture feeling and sensation in lieu of a slavish devotion to verities. “My God,” cries the Joe Friday Squad, “they’re letting inmates run the asylum!”

How easily one forgets the asylum is real estate. Over its lifespan it will have many uses.

Simple then to believe the essay is in distress; that facts in creative writing are under attack; that civilization is in danger; that something nefarious is going on at a college near you.

Deresewiecz would have his readers believe D’Agata is Typhoid Mary, infecting the libraries and bookstores of America with meretricious nonsense. The truth and indeed the scruple is, and always, more nuanced and compelling. Ronald Reagan said famously “Facts are stupid things,” but D’Agata doesn’t think so, nor do most lyric writers who work with the essay form. What marks Deresewiecz as duplicitous is his failure to make a distinction between D’Agata’s willingness to look beyond facts and the instances where D’Agata simply makes a mistake. (Much is made of D’Agata’s assertion in the forward to an essay that the USA went to the moon 18 times. “Foul!” cries Deresewiecz without acknowledging a rather simple mistake—we sent 18 men to the moon on six rockets. In the final analysis Deresewicz has published a second rate ad hominem attack rather than writing a nuanced view of D’Agata’s work or of the essay as it’s practiced in the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

Poetry, and a Service Dog Memory as Autumn Comes

I have joined poet Bob Herz as co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and Nine Mile Books. Our latest issue, Spring 2015 is now online and you can read it here. I also urge my blog readers to visit our wonderful series of podcasts “Talk About Poetry” available both on Sound Cloud and iTunes.

“Do not be shy about poetry,” said the great American poet known as “My Dog” who has been to more poetry readings than most two legged poets, “for poetry is memory turned toward affection.”

I quizzed her about this. “Affection can’t be “all” that a poem is concerned with, surely,” I asked.

“I mean affection in a mammalian sense,” she said. “Affection is whatever ain’t neurosis.”

Aside from the fact my dog is a Jungian (and perhaps a bit sentimental in a Manichean way) I think she’s right. Poetry is the best available means of crafting both our memories and our instincts.

Robert Frost said famously: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

The crafting is another matter. The poem, a made thing, a true “fancy” is more than a lump in the throat. In effect a poem becomes a mythos—wherein past and present combine, and in turn, where that combinative work changes the future. Frost understood this better than many. We love him for knowing it. “Two roads diverged”:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

What poems give us whether we are makers or readers is the artful relief of aleatoric forces, the accidents, the large or small calamities that winnow us, frighten us, deplete our spirits.

Poetry always says we are smarter than we knew. We were homesick at first, then we found true Ithaca.

“True Ithaca” might be the title of a good poem. Please write it.

Meanwhile I hope you will visit our magazine. f

**

Odd events happen when you have a service animal, what I like to call little movies. For instance I was minding my p’s and q’s in Ithaca, New York, when the phone rang. The woman’s voice was gravelly and hesitant. “I don’t know you,” she said, “but I asked around about you.” “Oh yes,” I said and waited to hear what she had to say. “Well,” she said, “I’m the president of the local garden club and we’re a group of women who gather and talk about nature and we thought it would be fun if you came to our next meeting. You know, just talk about guide dogs.”

I agreed to do it. What harm could there be? I pictured a tastefully decorated sun room and a dozen women and a tea trolley. I should have suspected things would be different when Mrs. Grundy (for that’s what I’ll call her) dispatched a limousine to get me and bring me to their party. And I should have been suspicious that the garden party was meeting in the evening. Who holds garden parties at night?  Corky and I got into the Lincoln town car and the uniformed driver drove us through the rainy night for over half an hour only to drop us at a remote farm house. I didn’t know where I was. For some reason it didn’t occur to me to ask. I was attending a garden party at a gentle farm. How bad could it be? I had my dog. How bad could it be? The driver drove away. I stood for a moment in the rain and collected my wits and headed for the front porch. Up the steps we went. And the door swung open and there was Mrs. Grundy laughing to see us.

Soon enough we learned it wasn’t a garden party at all, but an “Amway” meeting—the event was about recruiting women to sell cleaning products and we were treated to a film about soap and stain removers and a dozen of us sat in rickety chairs and rain beat at the windows and I did my best to smile while stroking my dog’s ears—my dog as familiar, my dog as lucky blanket. I was in the country home of Mrs. Grundy who had a smoker’s cough and a watery personality, which is to say, she didn’t understand human beings are something other than images in dreams. We were captive in the temple of her thin, rural dream—we would sell soap and she would become the queen of soap and our chairs squeaked and every now and then you could hear November wind punching at the eaves of the old house.

When it was time for discussion, following the movie, and Grundy’s pitch about financial independence through soap, which meant, selling lots of soap, and in turn, recruiting people to sell soap, for Amway is a pyramid scheme—you sell detergent and get ten acquaintances to sell detergent, and you’re promised a handsome return—and after all that, I asked what any of this had to do with guide dogs. I was kindly or so I thought. Wasn’t I supposed to talk about nature?

Well Grundy had a different take for she said without irony that blind people are poor—aren’t they? And why couldn’t I recruit an army of blind soap sellers and thereby make sightless people rich? I could, couldn’t I? And that was my introduction to the able-bodied idea that all blind people must necessarily know all other blind people.

One woman spoke up. I don’t remember her name. She said: “How can Steve know every blind person? Do you think blind people just hang out together under a bridge somewhere?”

I loved her for saying it. But Grundy had no irony as I say, and she sailed onward:

“He can call all the guide dog users, they must have a network,” she said.

I was properly kind—said something about privacy laws.

It got worse of course. Mrs. Grundy said something about “the problem” with disabled people. That they don’t want to work.

I decided to walk out of her house and into the rainy night. I had no idea of the Lincoln town car would be outside. It didn’t matter. I figured with my dog by my side I could hitch hike back to Ithaca. I felt strong. The unknown didn’t bother me. It was a new feeling for me. I’d barely been home a month from guide dog school and I felt utterly independent.

I just got up. Opened the door and shut it behind me.

I walked a long way in the rain with Corky jingling beside me. Eventually I reached the bottom of Grundy’s twisted drive and just as I did so, the Lincoln pulled up and the driver swung open the back door and in we climbed and off we went.

I shared none of the story with the driver. Maybe he was Grundy’s grandson.

Blind people don’t want to work. All blind people must know each other. What wonderful medieval ideas, I thought. I pictured the blind, all of them, living under a bridge in Paris, all clutching battered fiddles, one or two of them with an untrained skinny dog on a string.

 

 

In Defense of Sherman Alexie

 

Copper Canyon Press Logo

 

I read yesterday with something more than dismay but less than horror of a literary scam. Perhaps I should say “more than dismay” means keen disapprobation; “less than horror” means (as far as I know) no animals or people have been harmed. (At least so far.)

Of the scam it’s enough to say a very fine American poet, Sherman Alexie, who served this year as the annual guest editor of a widely respected and venerable anthology called “The Best American Poetry” was victimized by a white poet who submitted work under an assumed Chinese name. Because the anthology reprints poems which have appeared in literary journals in the US over the course of the preceding year, the ersatz Chinese writer’s work had already appeared elsewhere under his false name.

The anthology is much beloved by poets and poetry lovers and for good reason, for though it’s difficult to prove “the best” in any arena, (the “best” is so entirely THE American hook—the “best” nonfat dairy substitute; the “best” of the “Lovin’ Spoonful”, etc.) the book always brings together remarkable poets and showcases their work in a highly readable volume.

The scam tricked Mr. Alexie and everyone else. The trickster whose poem was selected revealed himself in his contributors note, asserting he’s not of Chinese origin at all, but, golly gee, said he, isn’t it interesting his poems get rejected all the time unless he adopts a foreign name?

One should hardly think this is a probative question. As a poet myself, I can attest my rejection to acceptance rate is steep. I might be well known as a writer but my rejection rate remains high. This is the customary reception all artists receive, even those of us who’ve had some success.

The put upon, faux Chinese poet argued his poems are only evaluated if he uses a tricked out exotic nom de plume. For my money this is meretricious. Moreover it’s a cynical ruse, one that cuts two ways. It says: I won’t do the work of publication and reception under my own name; I will adopt a multicultural identity and prove that in the age of diversity respect, I too can earn respect by engaging in a sleight of hand. The first is a sin of omission, the second is a colonizing con, one that insults all artists who hail from historically marginalized positions.

Mr. Alexie, who is an award winning Native-American poet, learning of this misrepresentation, decided to keep the offending poem in the anthology, arguing con or not, the man wrote a poem. The poem can stand for itself. I admire Alexie’s liberality in defense of the poem. I also appreciate his dilemma. If he’d removed the poem he would effectively start an argument about poetry itself—who gets to write it, who doesn’t; what is freedom of speech; what is the relationship between “intentionality” in literature and “reception” by readers and editors; who, ultimately is the colonizer and who is colonized? It’s a long list of apprehensions certainly.

Me? I’m angry on behalf of Sherman Alexie who was misled and then felt he needed to stand up for art alone. I think he did the right thing.

But here is one more way to look at the this. My poetry publisher is Copper Canyon Press.

Their “logo” consists of two Chinese written figures. One represents “word” and the other “temple”. When they are placed side by side, they signify poetry in Chinese.

The ersatz Chinese poet fouled the temple. That will be his punishment. The temple will survive. No animals or people were harmed.