12 Winters Blog

The Loss of the Literary Voice and Its Consequences

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 23, 2019

The following paper was presented at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, on “Remembering Lost Voices.” The panel was titled “The Reading Public: Recovering Reader Experiences and Agency.” Other papers were “Recovering the Lost Voices of Nonprofessional Readers” by Tomas Oliver Beebee, Penn State; “Unplugged Reading: Digital Disconnect as a Form of Resistance” by Cátia Ferreira, Católica Portuguesa; and “Recovering Voices Lost: The Reader-Listener as Secondary Witness” by Eden Wales Freedman, Mount Mercy. Helen Groth, New South Wales, served as (impromptu) chair and discussant.


Be forewarned: This paper likely proposes more questions than it offers anything remotely resembling solutions. But as we know framing the proper questions, or framing the questions properly, is a necessary step in any process which hopes to advance some positive effect. Much of this paper is based on the writings and observations of American author William H. Gass (1924-2017), of whom I’ve been a devotee (some may say “disciple”) for a decade. In 1968, at the height of Vietnam War protests, Gass published the essay “The Artist and Society,” in which he states “[naturally] the artist is an enemy of the state . . . [who] is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there.” He goes on to say that “[artful] books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times” (287, 288). Then Gass asks, “How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” That is, Gass seemed to believe that artists, including literary artists like himself, could have a profound impact on society, enough of an impact to sway governments from one policy position to another, through the sheer force of their art. Reading his words and others’, and taking in other forms of art, could, in fact, alter human consciousness.

Gass of course was hardly alone in this observation, and it may have been believable in 1968 when the Counterculture, led by the United States’ youth and the country’s intellectuals, were reshaping public opinion on the war in Southeast Asia. But changes were already afoot that would undercut the reformative powers of literature, and Gass’s optimism for that matter. In retrospect we can see that many such changes were afoot by the late sixties, but in this paper I want to concern myself chiefly with two: the corporate takeover of the publishing industry, and the coming of age of the Internet and, with it, social media.1

Gass at the podium

Indeed, Gass’s change of heart, from one of optimism to one of pessimism, can be seen in the preface he wrote in 1976 for the re-release of his seminal story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968): “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills [sports] stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in their service” (xiii). He continues, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the societal and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose” (xviii). So in less than a decade, Gass went from suggesting that literature could remake human consciousness and reform government policy, to believing that serious writing had no impact on society whatsoever.

What the heck happened?

One of the things that happened was the corporate takeover of the publishing industry. The process was largely undocumented when André Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books (2000). “In Europe and in America,” writes Schiffrin, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession. Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). However, in the turbulent sixties, large conglomerates began acquiring publishing houses. Schiffrin continues, “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much as possible” (5, emphasis in original). Schiffrin’s study is wide-ranging and thorough, but he focuses particular attention on the demise of Pantheon, where he’d been managing director for a number of years when it was acquired by Random House, which in turn was purchased by media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who inevitably insisted on changes to try to increase profits, unreasonably and unrealistically so, according to Schiffrin: “As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind of revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do. . . . New targets have therefore been set in the range of 12-15 percent, three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past” (118-19).

Andre Schiffin

Schiffrin documents in detail the mechanisms put in place to try to flog more profits out of the book business, but for our interests perhaps the most fundamental change was the expectation that every title must make a profit, and not just a modest profit. Before the corporate takeover of publishing, it was common practice for publishers to bring out authors’ first books, knowing they would likely lose money and that it may take years and several books before an author found enough of an audience to be profitable. In the meantime, other titles on a publisher’s list could subsidize the nurturing of a new(er) author. A good example is Cormac McCarthy, who is now a household name among readers of contemporary fiction. But McCarthy’s status as an award-winning and best-selling author was a longtime coming. As Daniel Robert King notes in Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016), “Random House took on [in 1965] and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, McCarthy’s longevity at Random House was due to the loyalty and hardheadedness of his editor Albert Erskine, who insisted that McCarthy’s early titles stay in print in spite of their anemic sales, even in paperback (32-33).

Cormac McCarthy

But such loyalty would come to an end when corporations took over the industry, and editors were pitted against each other to reach ever-increasing profit expectations. Decisions about which titles to acquire, how large the print runs should be, and whether or not a contract should be offered for a second book from an author increasingly became the purview of the accounting and marketing departments, and not editorial. By 1990, corporate publishers only wanted to publish books that warranted 100,000 press runs. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, according to Marty Asher, with the Book-of-the-Month Club and then Vintage (qtd. in Schiffrin 106). Obviously such bottom-line-minded expectations would make it foolhardy for an editor to take on a first book from just about any author, even a Cormac-McCarthy-to-be.

This emphasis on profit also impacted representations of ideology. By and large, corporations are run by conservatives (think Rupert Murdach), so it hasn’t just been new authors who have been silenced but any author writing from a liberal perspective. For a time, this corporate bias toward conservatism was somewhat offset by university and independent publishers, but they, too, have been impacted by changes in the publishing world, either due to acquisitions or universities which have had to be more money-minded to stay afloat. It is worth noting that André Schiffrin’s book on the demise of independent publishing is nearly twenty years old. On nearly every front things have gotten worse since 2000. Today there are essentially five commercial publishers remaining in the United States, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the so-called “Big Five”: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (Scholastic is number-six, thanks in large part to their publishing the Harry Potter series) (Milliot). These publishers account for more than eighty percent of sales in the U.S.

All of this has led to a homogenization in publishing. It is fiscally safer to publish book after book by the same few dozen authors (James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, etc.) than take a chance on a new voice, or if it is a new author, it’s a new author whose book sounds very much like one that proved successful. The runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, gave birth to a new genre: “teen paranormal romance,” essentially beautiful but troubled young women falling in love with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, etc.—Prince Charmings, with fangs, fur, chills or gills.

Meanwhile, along came the Internet. Towards the end of Schiffrin’s book on publishing, again, which came out in 2000, he was mildly optimistic that technological advances could be an avenue for worthwhile books to reach readers. In a sense, his optimism was well-founded. The rise of e-readers and print-on-demand books, in both hardcover and paperback, has made it possible for almost anyone to get their words into print. For example, in 2012 I established Twelve Winters Press, a print-on-demand and digital publisher, to produce my own books as well as other worthy books whose authors were frustrated in finding outlets for their work. We’ve averaged four to six titles per year, mainly fiction, but also poetry and children’s books. Our books are available globally and are reasonably priced. Titles have won awards, and one of our books recently won best cover design in the category of fiction.

We’re only missing one element to be considered a rousing success in independent publishing: readers, also known as book sales. Practically no one will read our books. It is extremely difficult to get our books reviewed—and literally impossible to get them reviewed by major reviewers—and when they are reviewed, reviewers seem duty-bound to moderate their praise with some bit of negative criticism. But it probably wouldn’t matter. Even glowing book reviews have little to no impact on sales. Nearly all of the prestigious book competitions are off limits to small, independent publishers. Either their entry fees are too high, or they require a minimum print run that small presses can’t attain. We’ve had some success in indie competitions, but even they are expensive by small-press standards, and, again, success doesn’t translate to sales. We advertise our books and authors through social media, and for the last couple of years we’ve spent $2,000 to $3,000 annually on traditional advertising, including ads in The New York Review of Books. Practically nada, almost literally nothing. I may as well have shoveled all that cash into an incinerator.

The problem is that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are readers, and those who are readers are not interested in well-written, challenging texts. Data on how little Americans read, in every age group, are readily available. What is difficult to discern in the numbers is how little literature is being read. Surveys and studies tend to identify how frequently novels are being read, but it would seem that the vast majority of those books are mysteries, thrillers and other light genres. Perhaps one way of getting some idea of how much literature is being read is to compare it to poetry. According to Statista, eleven percent of Americans claim to read poetry on a regular basis. The reliability of these numbers is suspect, of course, but it may give us some sense of the situation.

One difficulty is answering the question, How does one define literature? William Gass seemed to have a working definition at least, one that he shared in a 1981 interview when he said, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of things is always problematic” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once a leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

If not serious fiction, then, what is being published, especially by the Big Five commercial publishers? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . .  They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). Indeed, in the early 1970s Gass saw the trend developing of a negative correlation between the quality of the writing (the seriousness of it) and its likelihood for being published at all. Regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, Gass said that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it” (McCauley 12). It was published eventually, in 1995, after nearly thirty years of literary labor. By then Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

In essence, then, our culture—really, Western culture—has lost the literary voice: today’s Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Lawrence, Gass, and so on. It’s an uphill struggle to find a publisher, and once found an even steeper struggle to find readers. Who today would publish Ulysses, leave be Finnegans Wake? If published, perhaps self-published, who would read it?

My time for this presentation grows short, so let me shift gears to the issue of What does it matter that less and less literature is being read? For one thing, I see the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is synonymous with racism, White Nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a host of other evils, as being related to the loss of the literary voice. This topic is clearly complex, and I can only barely begin to introduce it here, but we know that Trump supporters are in the minority in the United States, perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population, and we know that most of those Trump supporters live in non-urban areas—places where the demographic of white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal folks reside in insulated enclaves. They are fed their news and their views from conservative outlets and from Trump himself via Twitter, Fox News, Breitbart, etc. Meanwhile, we know that reading increases awareness of others—let’s say capital “O” Others—and study after study has shown that reading about those not like ourselves also fosters empathy.

Interwoven here is the subject of censorship, which I want to touch on briefly. In The Business of Books, Schiffrin discusses how right-leaning conglomerates overlook left-leaning authors, but beyond that editors in dog-eat-dog corporate publishing houses reject material for fear of its unpopularity, which would in turn adversely affect their pay and job security. Another disturbing trend is self-censorship among readers. It seems that the rising tide of conservatism is creating readers who won’t allow themselves to read material they deem immoral. A couple of anecdotes. In January I attended the MLA National Convention in Chicago, and one of the panels I went to was on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint turning fifty. Two of three Roth scholars were from Midwestern universities, and they said they hadn’t actually taught Portnoy’s for years because their graduate students are too squeamish to discuss the book in class. The third Roth person was a professor at Princeton, and he was nonplussed. Apparently he teaches his Ivy Leaguers Portnoy’s every other semester.

I had a similar experience just last quarter. For our final reading I had assigned William Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I had one grad student refuse to read it when he discovered it contained “raunchy” language. A couple of other students read it but were put off by its language and sexual subject matter. I’ve been thinking that a fascist society hardly needs to bother imprisoning writers and burning books in the square if they can create a culture where most people don’t like to read and even budding “intellectuals” censor themselves on moral or religious grounds.

Speaking of Gass, long before the deleterious effects of the Internet and cable news could be known, he saw the handwriting on the wall. In his commencement address to the Washington University (St. Louis) Class of 1979, Gass cautioned the grads: “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. . . .  We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (“On Reading to Oneself” 222) The cure Gass advised is the reading of great books, “for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response” (227). Elsewhere Gass emphasized that “the removal of bad belief [is] as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision [is] to the body it imperil[s]. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse that having a nose full of flu . . .” (“Retrospection” 51). He went on to recommend rigorous self-skepticism regarding one’s own ideas, “theorizing” about errors in thinking: “Skepticism,” he said, “was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.”

We must make those who are prone to bigotry, who believe brown-skinned migrants deserve to be tossed in cages or left to perish in rivers and at sea, who are anxious to accept any fraudulent information that supports their worldview, who deny the threat of climate change in spite of the data, who believe healthcare is a privilege—we must make them self-skeptical, as Gass advised. We must get them in the habit of questioning their own beliefs. We must get them reading again. Or as Laurie Champion describes it, in her article on Thoreau and Bobbie Ann Mason, we must get people in “a transcendental state of mind that involves intellectual and spiritual searches that lead to clear sight” (57).

Doing that, no matter how difficult, must be our mission.

Note

I realize of course that I’m not the first person to lament the sorry state of serious writing in their time. Just a few examples: Emerson, Margaret Fuller and other Transcendentalists founded The Dial in 1840 due in large part to the dearth of decent reading material in spite of their periodical-rich time period. Victorian and Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett frequently clashed with the publishers for whom he worked because he felt they didn’t do enough to cultivate a more cosmopolitan appetite among England’s overly conservative and insulated readers. James Joyce famously exiled himself to the Continent mainly due to the sad state of Irish letters. A key difference perhaps, between these thens and now, is that there were a lot of people reading a lot of material, whereas today fewer and fewer people are reading, anything, period.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Champion, Laurie. “‘I Keep Looking Back to See Where I’ve Been’: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf, 1970, pp. 276-288.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 217-228.

—. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences. Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

McCauley, Carole Spearin. “William H. Gass.” Ammon, pp. 3-12.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books. Verso, 2000.

Interview with Melissa Morrissey: Shawna’s Sparkle

Posted in August 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 23, 2015

When I founded Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I didn’t anticipate establishing an imprint for children’s literature — nor did I anticipate meeting my (now) wife, Melissa. Besides our both being educators, Melissa and I are bibliophiles (if not -maniacs). She’d always written and had in mind that she’d like to publish books (like her father, Larry D. Underwood, who wrote and published several history books and even an historical novel). In particular, she had some ideas for children’s books, but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting them published. I told her I’d be happy to show her the ropes — how to look for an agent … and wait and wait and wait … or submit directly to a publisher … and wait and wait and wait … Or, instead, we could direct our time and creative energies to establishing our own children’s literature imprint, and bring out her books ourselves.

Shawna's Sparkle - front cover 1000

So that’s what we’ve done. This past year we established Shining Hall, and our first project was to publish Melissa’s book Shawna’s Sparkle. As Melissa was writing the book, she had characters in mind in the style of one of our favorite local artists, Felicia Olin. When the story was completed, we crossed our fingers and contacted Felicia about possibly doing the illustrations. She agreed, in spite of her busy schedule getting her paintings ready for upcoming exhibits and various art shows. Earlier in the summer of 2015, Felicia sent us the illustrations that she’d created. We were blown away. We’d only had a brief meeting with Felicia over coffee at Wm. Van’s in Springfield, and gave her very little in the way of direction, trusting her artistic instincts — and our trust was well placed.

I went to work designing the book (my first children’s book), and on July 10 Shawna’s Sparkle was released in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions. So far response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, to both the story itself and to Felicia’s wonderful illustrations. It’s become something of a tradition that I interview the authors I’m publishing about their books, and even though I of course already know a lot about Melissa’s book, I didn’t see any reason to suspend the tradition on account of our being married. I gave Melissa some questions about the book and her writing of it, and what follows are her unedited responses. We have other books by Melissa in the works, and Shining Hall will begin publishing books by other children’s authors in the near future. We’re also planning a children’s book contest for early 2016.

Melissa 1

What made you want to write a book for children?

I am a teacher, so I feel I can easily relate to children. They are so open. They love to read and people love to read to them.

For most authors, their characters are composites of different people they’ve known, maybe mixed with a healthy dose of self. Who is Shawna, would you say?

She is a part of me, of course. Anytime you write, a part of you comes out. I have changed some details, such as only having a brother. However, as a child, I felt very much like Shawna and sometimes still do.

You’ve said that you want the book to teach children to love themselves and appreciate their special gifts. Why do you think that’s so important for kids?

Children are born with a connection and lots of sparkle. Put a child in a room and every eye in the room is transfixed. They have such light. Life, and unfortunately sometimes school and adults, makes their sparkle dim. They can forget that connection. Kids that struggle in school have it especially hard because they have to go to school all day and practice things they are not good at or comfortable doing. What torture! As adults, we mostly do things to reinforce talents. School doesn’t always work that way. We all have gifts, however, and capitalizing on them makes us sparkle in all areas of our life. Any child who learns this early, has a leg up on life so to speak.

In what ways does Shawna’s Sparkle reflect your interests in meditation and mindfulness?

My interests in meditation and mindfulness come out in Shawna’s dream, especially. The book is simplistic in that a simple dream changes everything; however, it can be that easy. One moment can change your whole life. Reconnecting with your “sparkle” occurs naturally when you meditate or become more mindful of your gifts. I am passionate about people becoming more mindful because as we all increase our sparkle, the whole world is filled with more light. There are a lot of children hurting right now. I believe learning mindfulness would equip them with tools that would serve them their entire lives.

Shawna seems to be something of a throw-back to an earlier time in that she loves books and reading, and there’s no mention in your book of modern technology — no iPad, not even any TV. Why do you think reading, and maybe especially reading old-fashioned books, is so important for children?

There is so much to be learned about life, humans, and empathy through the characters in literature. There is currently a push to read more nonfiction, and indeed nonfiction has its place in education, but purely reading nonfiction makes your brain lazy. I think that is why struggling readers and kids on the spectrum can be drawn to nonfiction. When you read literature there are all kinds of characters and emotions to keep straight in your brain. It is a real workout but so rewarding! We can see through a character’s eyes and experience a side of life and a point of view that we may not have otherwise considered. I like to think that if we knew how others were feeling we would all be gentler and kinder.

What about artist Felicia Olin’s work made you think she’d be the perfect illustrator for Shawna’s Sparkle? How did you feel about the illustrations she created?

When writing Shawna’s Sparkle, I pictured the characters as if created by Felicia. I actually mentioned the book to one person who suggested I contact her. He was amazed when I told him I already had her in mind. People that know me know I don’t believe in coincidences. I was very thankful that she agreed to do this project. Felicia brought the book to life in a way I certainly could never have done. I am eternally grateful and continually wowed by her work.

How much do you think your father’s example of being an author impacted your desire to write and publish?

My earliest childhood memories were of sitting on my father, author Larry D. Underwood’s, lap and stating that “when I grow up I’m going to be a teacher and a writer just like you!” He inspired me to challenge myself in both my reading and writing. I wrote a teen novel for a contest in high school. It wasn’t chosen, so I stuck it in a drawer. However, I continued writing various articles and editorials including one in Springhouse magazine. I always planned to get back to writing more seriously. Since my dad has been “in spirit” I feel the urge to write more strongly, which can no longer be ignored.

You spent two decades teaching special education students. How did that experience influence your writing of the book?

My father encouraged me to go into special education and the career has served me well.  I am perfectly suited to smaller groups and children who respond to love, attention, and my gentle nature. My administrators and supervisors always commented that I had a calming effect on students. I was grateful that they recognized and appreciated that in me because I do not believe in yelling at children to motivate them. I am now in special education administration and miss that classroom connection immensely. This book, I feel, is allowing me to reach a larger audience than my single classroom, including all the people I never had the honor to teach.

Why is it important to you that your book was published in Dyslexie font, which is designed to be easier to read for learners with dyslexia?

I was always bothered by my inability to “fix” dyslexia, which was really the wrong way to approach it because students with dyslexia have so many other gifts, like their ability to see the world in a different way. However, I feel that the font will help students access print more readily. I also intend to release the book in an audio format soon.

What other writing projects are you working on?

I am working on a teacher’s guide for Shawna’s Sparkle that will align with Common Core.  I have other books written that teach social emotional skills. We are working on getting illustrators for them. Also, I am working on a new series of books that center around our rescue dog, Einstein, and will help teach the Next Generation Science Standards. We are hoping to release the first one soon, if we get an illustrator on board.

Melissa Morrissey, an Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, has been a special education teacher and administrator for over twenty years. She holds degrees from Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and University of Illinois Springfield. Shawna’s Sparkle is her first book. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

William H. Gass at 90: Passages of Time

Posted in September 2014 by Ted Morrissey on September 28, 2014

I’ve just returned from Washington University in St. Louis where I attended “Passages of Time: A literary event marking the 90th birthday of celebrated author William H. Gass.” The reading and reception were held in Umrath Lounge from 4 to 6 p.m. After welcoming and introductory remarks by Jeffrey Trzeciak, University Librarian, and Dr. Gerhild Williams, German professor and vice provost, Gass read from several of his works for about 40 minutes.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

Gass, or “The Master,” as I call him, arrived via wheelchair and gave his reading from a chair, but while his mobility was impaired, he appeared sharp of mind and his voice was clear and  robust–not remarkably different from other readings of his that I attended in 2008 (AWP Conference in Chicago) and 2013 (Left Bank Books in St. Louis). For the most part, Gass read from his works in published chronological order, beginning with passages from the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966), followed by selections from “Order of Insects” (in 1969’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), The Tunnel (1995), “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata), Middle C (2013), and concluding with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” (in Reading Rilke, 1999).

Between selections, Gass spoke briefly about each piece, often humorously. Upon finishing his reading, the large gathering gave the author an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Gass said, “Rilke is good.”

Several of Gass’s books have been re-released and were available at the reading and reception in autographed editions. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country had not arrived in time for the event. Gass has supposedly been working on a new story collection as well as a new collection of novellas, a form that he especially likes.  I hope to hear the author reading from those books at his 100th birthday celebration.

I recommend the following links to learn more about The Master:

Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (the William H. Gass Papers and International Writers Center)

“William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence” (digitized manuscripts, photographs, readings and more)

And keep up to date on Gass events and happenings at ReadingGass.org

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass's reading.

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass’s reading. (Photo by my wife, Melissa)

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)

 

 

The Loss of Intellect by Ted Morrissey

Posted in April 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 15, 2014

I appreciate NAR’s invitation to contribute to its blog.

Morrissey blog pic

My review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C for NAR was a warm-up for a longer critical paper that I’ll present at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and in preparing to write that paper I re-read several of Gass’s essays and interviews, including an interview from 1995 that was published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3.1 (1997), and reprinted in Conversations with William H. Gass (2003), edited by Theodore G. Ammon.

The interviewer, Idiko Kaposi, asked Gass his view on emerging (mid-90s) technologies and how they would affect writing, reading, and ultimately, thinking. As a teacher, mainly of eighteen-year-olds, looking back at Gass’s remarks from nearly two decades ago, I find his insights disturbingly accurate. Gass, besides being an award-winning novelist and literary critic, was also a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, since retired.

Gass suspected that the…

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Notes from the Illinois Education and Technology Conference 2012

Posted in December 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 2, 2012

(It’s been several months since my last post.  I’ve been writing a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and it’s soaked up a lot of my time and writing energy.  In particular, Sunday mornings have been my preferred blogging time, but that has also been the best hours to work on my Beowulf project, which is now far enough along that I can start to devote some thinking-writing time to other pursuits, like this blog.  I know:  Hooray!)

I’ve deliberately restricted the subject matter of this blog to my reading and writing life, which means I’ve deliberately avoided writing about other things that are important to me, like education.  But I’ve been a public schoolteacher for 29 years, plus I’ve also been an adjunct instructor at two universities, one public, one Catholic, for 15 years — so I have a lot of opinions about education (informed opinions, I like to believe).  I’ve avoided blogging about education-related issues for a couple of reasons, most likely.  One, so much of my life and my being are devoted to teaching, it’s a pleasant break to blog about other pats of my life that are important to me.  Two — and no. 2 is the more practical matter — to write about education is to, inevitably, critique education, and since my experiences are limited to specific faculties and specific superiors, that means I must at times critique my colleagues, my administrators, and my school board members.

I believe no. 2 is the reason that one hears so little (i.e., reads or sees via interviews, etc.) from actual practicing teachers:  all the power and authority flow in one direction, from the top down.  Quite frankly, a school board or an administration that decides it wants to make a teacher’s life miserable can quite easily do so.  I know that the media makes it sound like “teacher unions” are these all-powerful entities, but the truth is there’s very little associations can do to shield teachers from their superiors’ day-to-day ire.  New tenure/seniority and evaluation laws in Illinois make it fairly easy for administrations to circumvent tenure protection — but even before such laws were adopted, administrations could always rely on the oldest trick in the book:  perhaps they couldn’t very easily out and out fire a teacher they didn’t like, but there was nothing preventing them from making his life so miserable that he opted to resign or retire ahead of schedule.

Consequently, the ones who know education best — the classroom teachers who are in the trenches day in and day out — are left standing silently on the sidelines of debates, allowing their associations to speak for them en masse (associations, a.k.a, unions that have been demonized in the media as all that is wrong with education in the United States).

In my long layoff from blogging, while the presidential campaigns burned with rhetorical fury, often misrepresenting teachers and their collective mission, I decided to lift my own ban on writing about education … and I’ll begin by writing  about the 19th annual Illinois Education & Technology Conference that I attended in Springfield November 29 and 30.  To set the stage, I have been a long-time critic of technology’s powerful role in education.  I’m not a Luddite, not by any means.  I love technology.  I maintain multiple websites, I write two different blogs, I’m on Facebook (too much), I began tweeting before 90% of the world had heard of Twitter, I Skype, I have a smart phone, a netbook, a school-purchased iPad, and this desktop on which I’m writing this post; I love Netflix and Hulu, I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Vimeo, I’ve been into desktop publishing since the mid 80s. . . .

But at the same time, I believe our society and our schools have gone overboard with their worshiping of technology and their advocacy of its use in all circumstances.  Quite simply, when it comes to developing the mind via reading, writing and thinking skills, ancient, time-tested (non-computer-technological) ways are still the best — by far.  (Now that I’ve lifted my moratorium on discussing education-related issues I’m sure I’ll post more on these specific issues in the coming months.)

So I went to the conference as a devout skeptic, but I was truly hoping to find some reason for hope:  some concrete method for employing technology with my students that seemed to be beneficial, or at least some sense that technology would one day be viewed as a tool to be used when circumstances warranted, and not an idol who required daily pacification.

In a word, after two full days of conferencing, I was disappointed.

First of all, there were very few sessions that even pretended to offer practical advice on classroom pedagogy.  Many, if not most, of the sessions were conducted by school IT people, the people who bring technology into their districts then keep it running (and expanding). It’s not universal of course, but many IT people seem to view teachers as impediments to their getting the coolest technology into the hands of students.  One presenter (who I’m sure is a nice guy in the regular part of his life) even complained about teachers who have the audacity to ask “Why?” — that is, teachers who aren’t willing to embrace every piece of hardware and software that appears at their classroom door, but, rather, they respond critically (as in critically thinking) by asking what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.  (One notable exception was Jon Orech, of Downers Grove South High School, who said that asking why is, in fact, the most vital question when it comes to new technology, not what and how as so many seem to think.)

Another IT-person presenter referred to some teachers in his district as being “rock stars,” that is, teachers who use a lot of technology with their students — which of course suggests that more circumspect and more traditional teachers are, sadly, what, Fred Rogers-like? This presenter’s co-presenter expressed what also seems to be a common theme among the pro-tech folks:  That if all teachers would simply embrace all that the newest technologies have to offer, then students could finally reach their full potential.  Sounds great, except I don’t know what it means, in a practical sense, to embrace the newest technologies.  What would that look like in the classroom on a daily basis?  How would teachers have to change their approaches to unleash this revolution?  No one can seem to say.  For that matter, what sorts of potentials in students are we talking about?  It seems to have something to do with making them more creative.  Achievement is a popular concept; students using technology will achieve more or higher … or something.

Although, the gentleman who made the “rock star” comment also stressed to his fellow IT-ers in the audience, do not — repeat, do not — tell your administration that students will do better on achievement tests, because they probably won’t and then what do you do?  He was specifically referring to the concept of one-to-one computing, a trend in education that features giving each student a device of some sort (usually a laptop or a tablet, especially these days an iPad) and having them do just about everything via the device, avoiding traditional textbooks, and paper-based exams and projects, etc.  “Rock-star” man also advised his fellows not to count on saving some money in the budget by reducing the amount of paper being used, because this, in essence, “paperless” approach seems to use just as much paper as always.

One-to-one computing, or at least the idea of it, is big right now, especially in the Chicago suburbs it would seem.  Schools on the east coast started the trend several years ago, and most have already abandoned it — which isn’t stopping us Midwesterners from giving it a spin around the dancefloor.  “Rock star” guy’s co-presenter — both of whom, by the way, seem like very decent and funny human beings — said that their administrator wanted to go to one-to-one because neighboring superintendents were doing it, and he didn’t want to seem out of step.  This is another problem in education:  many school boards and administrators make decisions out of, basically, peer pressure, and not because of solid research results that support the approach, whichever one we’re talking about.

My final observation:  The iPad is extraordinarily popular right now in education — in spite of the fact no one seems to know how to use it in a classroom setting very effectively.  It doesn’t easily integrate with existing equipment, like other non-Mac computers, projectors and printers; plus its on-screen keyboard is awkward to use.  Teachers really, really like it, but they appreciate what it does for their professional and private lives, not for what it can do in the classroom, which doesn’t seem to be much.  I count myself among them.  I like my school-purchased iPad a lot and use it every day … at home.  I’ve found almost nothing that I can do with it in the classroom, in spite of wanting to find useful applications, which was one of the reasons I attended the conference.

Don’t get me wrong:  There were several sessions focused on using the iPad in the classroom, and I of course couldn’t attend all of them — so maybe I just missed the best of the best (my life can be like that) — but based on their descriptions and the sessions I did attend, the suggestions are pretty elementary, and consist of using the iPad in lieu of something else that’s more traditional and more common.  For example, use the iPad to make pictures, well, cave children made pictures on their school-cave walls; or use the iPad to make music, well, … you get it.  In other words, it seems like a lot of the pedagogical suggestions for the iPad are about playing.  And playing, I agree, can be very beneficial and even very educational, but since when did every kid need an iPad to play?

Let me just end by saying that I know tech people are good people, and teachers and administrators who fervently promote technology are good people — it’s just that too many people in education in general are working under the assumption that society has sold them:  that technology is inherently positive, and the more schools use it, the better those schools will be at teaching students.  We used to think smoking was healthy, too, and that asbestos was a wonderful, life-saving product.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we’re wrong; and we have to acknowledge it, and re-think and re-shape what we’re doing.  I’d like to believe that time is coming soon in education, but I suspect we’ll be lounging in our asbestos-tiled rooms  taking drags on our unfiltered Camels for decades to come.

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