Okla Elliott: “The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent”

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article three years ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

.We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

 

About the Author: Okla Elliott was the co-founder and Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be from its inception until his passing in 2017. For more about his life and work, visit our memorial page. 

 

Image Credit: “Ash Wednesday” Julian Falat (1881)

“The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent” By Okla Elliott

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article two years ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

.We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

 

About the Author: Okla Elliott was the co-founder and Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be from its inception until his passing in 2017. For more about his life and work, visit our memorial page. 

 

Image Credit: “Ash Wednesday” Julian Falat (1881)

A Growing Bibliography of Okla Elliott’s Work

Co-founder Okla Elliott served as the managing editor for As It Ought To Be from its inception until his unexpected passing in 2017. We remember Okla as a brilliant writer and an intellectually generous editor who delighted in providing platforms for others to shine. Collected below is a bibliography of his writings and remembrances of his extraordinary life. This bibliography will always be accessible under “contents” on the tool bar on the top of our pages. Because he was so prolific, it is nearly impossible to catalog all of his work. This page will continue to grow as we find more of his work online. If you have a favorite Okla Elliott piece that isn’t linked below, feel free to contact us at inquiries.asitoughttobe@gmail.com

Remembrances

AS IT OUGHT TO BE MOURNS THE LOSS OF OUR FOUNDER

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOT WITH JOHN GUZLOWSKI

REMEMBERING OKLA ELLIOT WITH MICHAEL YOUNG

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOT WITH PAUL CRENSHAW

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOTT

“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory

“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven

“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal

“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life

 

Okla’s Articles on As It Ought To Be

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

This Train Is Bound for Glory

The Storms in Philadelphia

The New Era of Engaged Literature

Five Thoughts on Cecil the Lion—Or: How the Internet Really Botched This One

Notes toward a Writerly Education—Or: Can We Please, Please, Please Have a Different Debate

Tilting Toward Winter

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

Existential Echoes: Toward a Genealogy of Ideas in Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm

Sin’s Fatal Taint: the Felony Murder Rule and its Discontents

Living in the Dollar-Amount Democracy

 

Okla’s Books

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement)

The Cartographer’s Ink

From the Crooked Timber

Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jurgen Becker (translator)

A Vulgar Geography

Lucid Bodies

The Other Chekhov (with Kyle Minor)

 

Okla’s Editorial Work

MAYDAY MAGAZINE

New American Press

 

Okla’s Poetry Online

Three Poems: “Imaginings in the Garden,” “The Dead,” and ” The Entire City” (from Masque & Spectacle)

“That the Soul Discharges Her Passions Upon False Objects” (from The Literary Review)

“Where We Are” (from Swamp Ape Review)

“The Parable of the Worm in the Apple” and 
“Shibboleth, Beginning and Ending with Lines from Kim Ch’un-Su” (from The Del Sol Review)

 

Okla’s Fiction Online

“The Earth in Its Devotion” (from Tupelo Quarterly)

“Marine Life” (from Joyland)

“Lonely Tylenol” (from Contemporary World Literature)

 

Okla’s Essays Online

“Lent is About More than What You Give Up: It’s About the Wisdom You Acquire” (from Penn Live)

“The Unseen Jury: The Ideology and Psychology of Covert Racism” (from Stir Journal)

“Is It Time for Ranked Voting Choice in National Politics?” (from The Hill)

“Measured Chaos: Form in Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek” (from Modern American Poetry)

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOT WITH JOHN GUZLOWSKI

By John Guzlowski:


LISTENING TO DEATH

How do we listen to death?

We listen to the sound of death
The way we listen to the sound of the sea
To the message the waves pound against the shore
Their soft rush of foam upon the sand

We hear the things we forgot to tell the dead
The questions we forgot to ask them
The enigmatic dreams they will never explain
The useless arguments we will neither win nor lose
The mutual misunderstandings
That will never be clarified
The lies for which we forgot to ask forgiveness
The problems death defers
The unresolved quarrels with the dead

And what can we do in the face of death?

We can leave this house
And keep going
Never to return

We will not even take
The things that have meant
The most to us, our books
The plants we have nursed
The children we have raised
Punished and praised
The clothes (the dark
Blue ties, the tweed jackets
The rakish wool caps)
That make us look
More the man
More the woman
More the hero
More the young lover
Searching for love

We can leave this house
And keep going
Never to return

And what is death?

It is the hand of God
The meal prepared with love
Flowers from the pierced breast
Of the Blessed Virgin
The shore that smells of widows
Studying the foam

And should we fear death?

No, we shouldn’t fear death
We should fear the loud man’s coming

The pain of cancer
That does this or that
To the body

That pain that is longer than sorrow
Stronger than love

The tumor that grows like
A child who then learns
To hate you

A child who will not take
The love and joy you give her

What is as difficult as death?

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing



POET’S NOTE: I met Okla on Facebook.

One day maybe 7 years ago, I got a friend request from him. I didn’t know a thing about him. He was just another fellow asking to be my friend. I said sure.

I’ve never been sorry I did.

Reading Okla’s posts, his status updates, his responses to other people has always been inspiring. What he wrote was smart and funny and engaging. Sometimes he sounded like Jean Paul Sartre, and sometimes he sounded like a kid in love with literature and life and friendship and thinking and dreaming. Both Oklas were wonderful.

And even more wonderful was the Okla I discovered when I started reading his poems and his essays and his fiction.

Okla was the real thing.

He was all the writers I ever admired, and he was right there with me on Facebook.

When I heard he was dead, I couldn’t believe it. He was too filled with life, too good, too dreaming, to be dead.

But he was dead.

But I will not let go of him.

Here [above] is a poem for Okla.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


REMEMBERING OKLA ELLIOT WITH MICHAEL YOUNG

By Michael Young:

Okla Elliott died in his sleep last night. I still haven’t fully comprehended this reality. His absence hasn’t filled the days to make me believe it. But the news is everywhere echoed through FB.

There are a few people on FB that I know almost exclusively through FB or met only a few times and yet I consider them friends and not just acquaintances. There is a kindship of mind and conscience that binds us. Okla was such a person. There was a mutual admiration and respect for …each other’s work. He was always welcoming of my work for As It Ought To Be and encouraging of my writing. And I had the pleasure of interviewing him and reviewing his collection The Cartographer’s Ink. The diversity, quantity, and quality of his literary output was amazing. I was so looking forward to reading his next poetry collection, which will now, sadly, not be coming. I enjoyed just hearing what he was teaching his classes. It was a pleasure to hear him take such joy in teaching, sparking conversation among his students, or just rhapsodize about the deliciousness of tacos. He was a brilliant and kind person. In online conversations, he strove always for fairness and inclusion that never compromised intellectual honesty. He seemed to face setback with determination and optimism. I saw this most clearly in the recent election outcome, always advising people to focus on state and local elections, and clear actions to take, rather than falling into doubt and bitterness. His intelligence and voice will be terribly missed. The silence it leaves will fill the coming days with something embodied in certain winter landscapes, a kind of waiting that isn’t answered but fades like an echo. But if you haven’t read any of his work, buy some: his poetry, his translation, the novel he co-authored with his good friend, Raul Clement.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOT WITH PAUL CRENSHAW

Photo Credit: Brandon Pierce

By Paul Crenshaw:

FOR OKLA

All that late-night talk of light, and life,
all those words, which became like worlds.
Which we both know were.
If you even need words anymore,
wherever you are, what world
you find yourself in.

Let me just say I hope there’s light.
Let me say I want to send this to you
so you know all the poetry was enough.
That the porch light is still on
in my mind. That the windows are open,
and the songs from inside the house still play.
You are still sitting in the overstuffed chair.
You are still smiling. Let me say
the lighting of a cigarette or
clink of ice in a glass is as much poetry
as anything we ever said.
Let me remind myself I remember all the words,
even if I’ve forgotten how to say them.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOTT

A version of this post was featured on this series in December of 2010. It is being shared here today as As It Ought To Be mourns the loss of our founder.


By Okla Elliott:

THE IDIOT’S FAITH

Three lanterns floated in the dream she told him, but he didn’t want to hear about lanterns. He wanted factories unbuilt, windows smashed open. He wanted libertine wailings. She denied being a builder of factories, but he knew her reputation. A wind blew in from Montreal, or she said it was from Montreal, said she could smell the bars of Rue St Laurent. He was skeptical but didn’t want to argue. What good are arguments on a Saturday night? What good are arguments at all? She told him again about her love of the French language, and he thought maybe they were getting somewhere. The modern sunset outside her window was spilled wine tinged with pollution. They went down the mountain to town, found the trouble she had decided they wanted. She called a homeless man a fallen Chinese god, and they mourned his sad descent, forgetting (almost) their own. That is the power of generosity, one use of our idiot faith in human love.

 

THE LIGHT HERE

It sets a mood
of clownish tragedy,
of ecstatic failure waiting to happen.

It is not a static blue light
nor the throb of a strobe.

It is not a light to read by
nor to be naked in,
unless you are desperate
or barbarously horny.

I would use it to look for you
in a cave or catacomb
or an ossuary crowded by the famous dead–
that is, if you were in such a place,
I would use this light to find you.

It is a light that yellows the periphery.
It is not a light that brightens the center.

It is mixed from an overcast morning
and the electric urban dusk.

It is a light I could live in
if I came to terms with certain failings
in my character
and the character of others.

I know you have light where you are,
better light even,
but I wanted you to know
about the light here.

 
Okla Elliott (1977 – 2017) passed away in his sleep last weekend. The Misicordia University professor, a prolific novelist, poet, short fiction writer, and translator, would have turned 40 this year. Those of us who knew him – and his circle of acquaintance and friendship was very wide indeed – are in shock from this wholly unanticipated death. He was kind, generous with his time, and indefatigable in his writing. He was much loved.

His work appeared in Harvard Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books included From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming). — David Bowen, The Book Haven (with edits)


Editor’s Note: Today I am honored to present to you the work of As It Ought To Be‘s managing editor. His work speaks for itself, as does the significant body of publications in which his work has appeared. Okla is an impressive scholar, a fearless leader, and a wonderful person to know in the writing world. He believes strongly in the idea of building and sustaining a community of writers, and I am honored to be a member of that community. Regarding today’s pieces I will say that Mr. Elliott effortlessly combines vignettes of straightforward narrative with crisp images and moments of simple yet brilliant language such as “What good are arguments on a Saturday night? What good are arguments at all,” “if you were in such a place, I would use this light to find you,” and this kicker of an ending, “It is a light I could live in / if I came to terms with certain failings / in my character / and the character of others. / I know you have light where you are, / better light even, / but I wanted you to know / about the light here.” Simple. Elegant. Stunning.

UPDATE: “The Light Here” appeared on the back cover of Okla’s memorial liturgy booklet at his funeral held at Misicordia University on Friday March 24, 2017.


ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life

AS IT OUGHT TO BE MOURNS THE LOSS OF OUR FOUNDER

“O Captain! My Captain!”

It is with a heavy heart that I write this post. Okla Elliot, longtime managing editor, champion, and co-founder of As It Ought To Be died unexpectedly this past weekend. He was far too young, and the depth of this loss is incalculable. The contributions he made while on this earth were of superheroic proportions, and the contributions this ambitious, talented, exceedingly capable man would have made had he lived to a ripe old age are beyond our wildest dreams.

Remembrances are pouring out from the many communities Okla inspired, alongside unimaginable grief from the countless individuals whose lives he changed for the better. From an obituary by David Bowen: “The Misicordia University professor, a prolific novelist, poet, short fiction writer, and translator, would have turned 40 this year. Those of us who knew him – and his circle of acquaintance and friendship was very wide indeed – are in shock from this wholly unanticipated death. He was kind, generous with his time, and indefatigable in his writing. He was much loved.”

He was much loved. Indeed. He was many, many things, and should have had the chance to be so many more. But not least among them, this exceedingly generous, one-of-a-kind human being was much loved.

Below are a few ways the world is remembering him.


VIA HIS POETRY

Entrances and Exits

When I was a younger man, a boy,
the intrigue of washing machine doors

trunks, windows, manholes–secret passages
of all sorts–possessed me. I spent hours

passing through and back through
a simple hole in the wall of a condemned house

careful to step with the other foot
or at a new angle each time,

conducting experiments that might foretell
how the world would receive me

and how I would leave.


Tilting Toward Winter

The air is gray and quiet as the sea’s
wet-dying warmth. A blackbird
screams out from memory and, pleased
with its sour chirping, keeps at it undeterred
by the browning season. I have everything
I could wish for —this air, this sea, this night.
We tilt toward winter, though the sand is spring
sand, erotic and youthful. Spirits are light
as May lasciviousness. But blood swells
to shore in cool disintegrating waves—
gone summer and gone winter aren’t real.
I walk into the unwarm froth, say farewell
to my selves that have died and pray for those still
to die — their wet wombs, their thick-salt graves.


WITH THE SONG HE WANTED PLAYED IN HIS MEMORY



WITH THE WORDS OF ONE OF HIS HEROES



WITH ONLINE TRIBUTES AND MEMORIALS

“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


BY WRITING POEMS IN MEMORIUM

“Okla’s Last Emails” by Lynn Houston
“For Okla Elliot” by Jay Sizemore


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE

As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing that remembers, eulogizes, and celebrates Okla. We would also love to include any additional tributes and memorial pieces that have been published elsewhere here in this memorial post. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


MEMORIAL SERVICES

A service to remember Okla Elliott will be held at 11:00am this coming Friday, March 24, in the chapel located in Mercy Hall of Misericordia University:

301 Lake Street
Dallas, PA 18612
(570) 674-6400

There will also be a memorial at 2:00 pm on Friday, March 31, in the Lucy Ellis Lounge, FLB, UIUC campus, Urbana, IL.

“The New Era of Engaged Literature” By Okla Elliott

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The New Era of Engaged Literature

by  Okla Elliott

 

When I was fourteen years old, I naively and ignorantly and perhaps over-seriously declared myself a Marxist. It was around this time that I also began considering myself a writer, though most of what I wrote sounded like quasi-plagiarized Bad Religion and Pixies lyrics. When I think back on that younger me whose main goals in life were to become a professional skateboarder and to save the world with his bad poetry, I feel a kind of wistful nostalgia; I also want to ruffle his hair and tell him to chill out a bit. That said, I can’t deny that in many ways those formative years are still with me and shape much of how I view literature today. Sure, I am no longer a Marxist (if in fact in my youthful ignorance I ever was), but rather a democratic socialist of the Bernie Sanders variety, but I sport a Black Flag tattoo that the fourteen-year-old me would be proud of, and I likewise have Simone de Beauvoir and Slavoj Žižek tattoos that the fourteen-year-old me would appreciate if he knew their work.

To be honest, my ignorance has likely been the guiding star for my literary development. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so when I made it to college, I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer. I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and German, double-minoring in French and religious studies, because I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was the way to become a writer. I also studied abroad to Germany and Poland in undergrad, another weird idea I had gotten into my ahead about how one becomes a writer. I remained highly political, preferring writers such as Gore Vidal over the aesthetes of the literary world. It wasn’t until I began my MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University that I learned politics and literature are frequently seen as opposing activities.

I have often half-joked that just as the rich don’t talk about money, American authors have tended not to talk about politics, since we’re members of the most powerful nation on Earth. The rich don’t talk about money, and the powerful don’t talk about politics. Authors in virtually every other nation are expected to incorporate politics into their work, however openly or obliquely. But I have seen this state of affairs in American literature change dramatically in the past handful of years (and of course there were notable exceptions beforehand). American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “engaged literature,” and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.

Putting aside my half-joke (which I don’t think is entirely empty), why else might American authors have had this tendency to avoid politics? There is one other key reason I see: rampant anti-intellectualism among Americans that reaches even into the corridors of universities, where our programs in creative writing are housed. One of my favorite professors during my own MFA referring to the scholars in the English department as “those pointy heads on the fourth floor” (the fourth floor being where their offices were). He said this several times in the years I was there, yet I never sensed an ounce of animosity in his words; it was merely a casual dismissal, and one that always got a chuckle of agreement from most of the students in the workshop. I have heard dozens of similar reports from other programs, with some even describing real dislike/distrust between the creative and scholarly factions within English departments. But I and many writers I’ve talked to feel this distaste for political thought and intellectual engagement in cultural issues is changing, at least among a sizable subset of us. The causes for this change are numerous, but having 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 collapse, and the unprecedented wealth inequality all hit us over the course of a decade or so are foremost among them.

Director of Ohio State University’s MFA program Michelle Herman said the following when I asked her about this trend:

In 28 years of teaching at Ohio State—and teaching through some pretty contentious election cycles, too—I cannot recall my graduate students (or the alumni of our graduate program, for that matter) injecting themselves quite so intensely into the whirl of political discourse.

Herman also has a theory as to why this might be happening at this point in history. She points out that “the ease of disseminating ideas, of moving from thought to ‘print’ (electronica) quickly enough for those thoughts to matter—or anyway to be heard” might have as much or more to do with this increase in political activity than some sweeping cultural change. I certainly agree that social media has played a huge and incalculably important role in such movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I think Herman has accurately hit on that importance. This moment in history is saturated with the effects of online activity in ways we likely won’t understand for many years, if ever.

There are three main causes, to my mind, for the shift to more political engagement in American literature in the past decade or so. 1) Institutional changes at the level of grant-giving entities and universities. 2) A general awakening to political and international problems across the culture. 3) An increase in literary inclusion of marginalized people.
I’ll begin with and focus largely on the institutional changes, because they are so pervasive and more easily quantified.

Interestingly, just as the advent of MFA programs and therefore the age of craft in American literature aided in reducing the amount of politically oriented literature in this country, I argue that the advent of the PhD in creative writing is aiding in ushering in a new age of engaged literature—though without totally jettisoning what we learned from our decades in the craft trenches. How so? Well, as part of their course load, PhD candidates in creative writing also have to take scholarly courses that expose them to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, and many others. They likewise receive introductions to the larger fields of disability studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and postcolonial studies. All of this means PhD candidates in creative writing receive at least a cursory knowledge—and in some cases an in-depth understanding—of major political and philosophical thinkers from around the world. This new hybrid degree is, in effect, creating a new hybrid category of creative writer, one that is interested in craft and social engagement in equal measure.

The other major institutional change that has helped bring about this new era of engaged literature in the United States is at the level of grant-funding entities. Obviously the events on 9/11 themselves were horrendous, as were the majority of the Bush administration’s reactions, but one interesting accidental byproduct of those events is that Americans were woken up and were forced to recognize that an outside world beyond the United States exists. There was a time when scholars were heavily funded to learn Russian and German, since those were languages of Soviet Russia and East Germany. In the years after 9/11, the US government pumped millions of dollars into the learning of Arabic, Korean, and Farsi—while still funding the study of Russian and Chinese at high levels. And in a kind of cultural trickle-down, universities have begun offering more courses in these languages and cultures.

Likewise, programs in translation were created, often connected to varying degrees with the MFA in creative writing program at the home university. Here are just some examples of recent translation programs added to major universities: University of Illinois added an MA and various certificate programs in translation in 2008; University of Maryland started an MA in translation in 2013; and University of Iowa, which already had an MFA in translation before this recent boom in such programs, has added an undergraduate certificate in global engagement via translation. This last one is especially salient for my point, since it overtly names engagement as part of its goal. And the list of new programs and journals focused on translation from around the world goes on and on. In 2015, even Amazon announced an investment of $10 million over the next five years in AmazonCrossing, its translation program founded in 2010. Since politics is heavily global in nature now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of all these new programs and investments in terms of its effects on literature.

The gifts of translation for English-language literature are myriad: blank verse as a solution for translating unrhymed Latin verse, the sonnet and sestina forms from Italian, couplets from French, and, some have claimed, free verse from Chinese. I argue that the 21st-century gift translation can give is an understanding of how political and literary discourses may most profitably mix.

I also believe that the adjunct crisis has created increased awareness among writers. With nearly 70% of our courses now being taught by adjuncts, emerging writers are often working for criminally low wages and no benefits or job security. This newfound economic precariousness among many writers has forced the issue of economics and institutional policy into the lives of writers in a way that was not as pronounced in previous decades.
The change at the institutional level therefore originates from several sources, ranging from government funding to greater global awareness to the increasing need for more higher education in the form of PhDs in creative writing if one wants to pursue a career as a creative writer in academia. The causal lines here are sometimes direct and sometimes roundabout or even totally accidental.

As I mentioned earlier there have of course been numerous exceptions throughout American literary history: Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright, among others, and there were of course excellent organizations like Cave Canem before the time period I am discussing. I am therefore emphatically not claiming that this is an entirely new phenomenon, just that there is a notable increase in it. Interestingly, we find that the least powerful among us—minorities, women, and the impoverished—are often more likely to inject politics into their literary production. Here is where my third main reason for this change comes in. A more open acknowledgment of racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ practices in the literary industry, as well as the founding of groups such as VIDA to highlight and combat such practices, have brought more marginalized writers to the forefront of American literary culture, thus bringing a more politically engaged literature to the forefront as well.

Given the limited space I have here, I have focused largely on changes institutions and organizations and how those have caused a shift in the literary culture in the United States, but as mentioned earlier, there is a broader and more nebulous increase in interest caused by recent historical events, a topic worthy of an entire essay unto itself. But that, as they say, is a project for another time.

As so many great authors from here in the United States and around the world have proven, literature does not have to choose between being aesthetically pleasing or politically engaged, between being of the moment or achieving timelessness. Aristotle famously defined humanity in two ways: 1) Humans are political animals. 2) Humans are linguistic animals. I would argue that engaged literature which still keeps its eye on craft brings these two definitions into enjoyable and productive harmony.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre loom over twentieth-century thought. It is hard to imagine feminism, leftist politics, literature, philosophy, or queer studies in the twentieth century without these two giants. Their work has been the topic for hundreds of books and articles, while their romance/friendship has been the cause of controversy and admiration in equal measure. The following is excerpted from a documentary on their lifelong relationship and their work.