To Turn with Joy and Hope: A Conversation Between Okla Elliott and Sonya Huber

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SH: So, Okla, you recently wrote Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, and are now working on a similar short book for Squint Books on Pope Francis. In the Bernie book, you manage to work in cool departures into sci-fi and the appeal of dystopian literature. Are you planning stuff like that with the Pope book? And is the Pope Francis book more difficult because he’s such a global figure?

OE: I have a chapter that is a theoretical interlude, as I did in the Bernie book, but this one appropriates certain aspects of Hegelian philosophy to describe a version of God that is different than the standard one. One of my main goals as a writer is to make really difficult philosophy accessible to a generally educated reader, and I do my best to take Hegel, who is famously dense and confusing, and make him comprehensible on the subject of the nature of God. I depart a bit from Hegel’s views, but I think I follow them to their logical conclusion despite disagreeing with his own final conclusions on the subject.

There is another connection between the Bernie book and the Pope Francis book—namely,heartre I place both figures into the larger global and historical context out of which they emerged and in which they are active forces. I think this is, broadly speaking, a loosely defined reaction to neoconservative and neoliberal policies that have jeopardized the environment, financial stability, human rights, and world peace. I get into greater detail in the book of course, but that’s the broad stage on which I place Pope Francis.

SH: That sounds awesome. Or, I mean, terribly necessary and therefore awesome. I tried to do the same thing with The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and also to make something like neoliberalism accessible as a concept. As an aside—do you think that neoliberalism itself is enough of a framework for activists for understanding what is going on with the world and how to oppose those structures? I think the idea of neoliberalism is so pervasive and vague and global (and such a confluence of capital and nation-state) that it’s difficult to turn it around into action targets. One of the immediate goals suggested by the analysis of neoliberalism is greater scrutiny on international trade and debt agreements. (On that note, I highly recommend Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999). Hillary has played both sides of the fence but is probably at heart in favor of these agreements and the general opening of markets. But ultimately, stopping these agreements is a reactive battle. What do you see as a way for movements to gain momentum against neoliberalism?

OE: I think you’re right to see fighting trade agreements after the fact as a reactionary battle we are destined to lose. We need to somehow preemptively strike in such a way as to prevent further trade agreements like the ones that have decimated the American middle class while ruining the environment and workers’ rights in third-world countries. The only real way to do this is elect politicians who aren’t beholden the corporate class over the majority of Americans and human rights around the world. The question of course is: how do we do that?

Speaking of politicians who support every trade deal that’s ever come across their desks (to use her own words), I would like to hear more about your Clinton book. I know you have both positive and negative thoughts about her as a candidate and public figure. Could you outline the area of greatest ambivalence for you?

hillarySH: Yes, definitely! First, she came of age within the New Democrat mindset and is married to its key architect. So the major question for me is the extent to which she sees compromise with right-wing agendas (both domestic and international) as a kind of unavoidable expediency. In the past she has said that she believes that the market and the American model need to be spread around the world, which is as neocolonial as it gets. As I talk about in the book, international trade deals (often made in secret) are one area I think she is unreliable on. Also, I wish she had a clearly reform-minded agenda on a key domestic point (like Sanders has with education). She has both a good track record for child advocacy AND a history of supporting neo-liberal domestic programs (like stricter work requirements for welfare recipients and standardized testing in schools. Other major concerns include the big unknown of her foreign policy, especially her desire to confront ISIL, with all of the unknown effects that might bring. And I go into a huge list of other reservations in the book.

Despite my reservations, however, I’m not worried about having her as president. In reference to your point about change, I think local politicians and campaigns do important work, but I also see how many social movements throughout history have made gains by pressing from the outside. An electoral campaign is great and can galvanize people who hadn’t previously considered themselves active, which might lead them into a more sustained social movement. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is immune to social pressure. In fact, I think her record is quite the opposite; she’s flexible and social movements have an opportunity with her. If she’s the president, her power would be as limited as Obama’s has been, and as any president’s would be.

My next question for you—with your view of both the domestic fire behind Bernie Sanders and the internal firebrand of Pope Francis—is whether this overlap represents some kind of a new era or new opportunity for change? (Impossible question, but I want to see what you think.)

OE: As I argue in my Bernie book, there is a general planet-wide unrest with neoliberal policies, whether we’re talking about austerity programs in Greece or neocolonial corporate activities in Latin America or domestic policies here in the United States like the berniebookones you mentioned. And for whatever reason, for such general unrest to form into effective movements, humans tend to need leaders to coalesce around. Not always, but as a rule. Right now, figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Pope Francis, Evo Morales, Justin Trudeau, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are spearheading what I see as a loosely connected global progressive movement. And, yes, I definitely see this as a huge opportunity for change here and abroad. We just need to keep the momentum going on all fronts all at once and not let up. My fear is that a Bernie Sanders loss in the primaries could make many of his followers crestfallen to the point of just giving up on effecting political change. It’s the job of people like you and me to make sure that doesn’t happen. So, no pressure or anything…

Since you brought up hope and/or potential for progressive change, what do you think a Clinton presidency can offer us in those regards, and what do you think it will offer in the opposite direction?

SH: The scenario of a Clinton presidency is interesting as a counterpoint to the Obama years. In 2008, I think many progressives and liberals saw his election as a win and were therefore slightly less motivated to get out and organize. This time around, I think the extremism in Trump’s platform combined with the full-on yardsale of the Democratic primaries means that people are a lot more educated about the ways in which we might ask for—and demand—more from our leaders and why it is particularly urgent to do so now, along with knowing a lot about key domestic and international issues. I hope skillful organizers connected to the Sanders infrastructure will channel the energy into a movement.

The hard thing is that an election has such a clear short-term endpoint, whereas so many social justice causes do not, so these skillful organizers will hopefully be able to frame issues in terms of intermediate steps and winnable goals without diluting the raw and ferocious passion for change (I guess that’s going to be my new band name, RAFP4C). Those organizers will also have to share theories with their supporters about how change happens beyond as well as within electoral politics.

On the issue of a Clinton presidency: I agree that there’s a danger of Bernie supporters falling into cynicism. Folks will also naturally be watching Clinton, ready to say “I told you so,” and this vigilance is necessary for sanity and for holding the administration accountable. On the other hand, that focus doesn’t necessarily build movements. I think it is up to Bernie supporters like us to turn with as much joy and hope toward the next future, to say that another world is possible, that electing a socialist president was a massively wild goal and that in coming close, we have shown ourselves that other massively wild things are possible. Now we need to go get them.

This is kind of weird question, but since you’re both in touch with Bernie supporters and are doing work on Pope Francis, is there an overlap? Do you feel like that voice coming from the Vatican, which has been pretty conservative since Vatican II, will add some oomph to progressive movements from a different direction of our population? Does the Pope have cred?

OE: All I have is anecdotal evidence to support the following answer, but I have tons of anecdotal evidence, so it feels like it is valid on some level. Nearly all of the people I see sharing Sanders memes on social media also share Pope Francis memes on social media. And what’s really interesting is how broad this pope’s appeal is. Many non-Catholics love him, and even atheist social media pages quote him. I think he is in a unique position to bring together different religious and political groups and move them in a more progressive direction. Basically, if we could get the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and Elizabeth Warren to do a world speaking tour, my life would be complete. (I’m only half-joking there.)

So, my final question for you: How do you see us moving forward, mixing moderate and progressive elements to form a sustainable and equitable future? And where does writing fit into all of this (a question I ask myself constantly without ever quite being able to concoct an answer I’m willing to settle on)?

SH: I am a mix of optimism and dread. Dread is my natural state, but I’m optimistic because the current debates have brought so many former “unquestionables” up for debate, from gender and sexuality to capitalism—even within moderate circles. With my public political writing, I sometimes set out to prove or argue a certain point, but lately I’m finding myself wanting to integrate more of the questioning and multivocal impulse of the essay into political topics, trying to take a stand while undercutting the traditional modes of argumentation. I tried to see Hillary Clinton from multiple angles in the book. I aim to provide some sort of a bridge between what occurs in political movements and outside of them. When I was very active in the labor movement, I felt like my creative writing was a guilty pleasure I couldn’t let go of but couldn’t talk about. These days especially with the range of outlets available, I’m getting more comfortable with allowing my political beliefs to infuse into my creative writing and vice versa. How about you on that same question?

OE: I recently wrote an essay titled “The New Era of Engaged Literature” in which I argue that American writers are finally getting serious about politics in a way we haven’t very often in the past. The majority of this focus is on identity politics here, which is important, but I hope more people will get into the nitty-gritty economics and law of politics as well. I think writers have massive powers of persuasion and education, which is why dictators always kill us first. If we can continue to write aesthetically interesting work that also has philosophical and/or political elements, I am optimistic that we can change the cultural discourse for the better in a lot of ways. And I think we need to take a multi-pronged approach here in terms of issues and literary genres to allow for the widest reach and maximum effect.

It’s been great chatting with you about these topics, by the way. We should do it again sometime.

SH: Definitely. On the interest of engaged literature, I am sure that the coming months are going to provide so many opportunities for it!

***

Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include 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), Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming). More at www.oklaelliott.net.

 

Sonya Huber is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys: Essays on Pain and Imagination (forthcoming in 2017). Her other books include The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2016) and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program. More at www.sonyahuber.com.

The Final Bakesale

sonya_2

The Final Bakesale

by

Sonya Huber 

Al Gore did not invent global warming or PowerPoint (I don’t think). He did make a movie about global warming using PowerPoint. And some say it was dull. I was so shaken by it that I immediately started surfing Al Gore’s Internet to buy gadgets with solar panels. I bought a shitty one that was supposed to act as a USB charger for my phone but then I left it out in the rain and it broke. I bought a lamp from IKEA that has a solar charger, but it didn’t really charge through a window, so I had to bring it outside to charge it, and when I tried to use it to read by, its little light bulb was horribly dim, and the light source was probably equally disappointing to the child in Africa who was supposed to get a similar lamp as a result of my purchase. Now the lamp lives on a bookshelf in my basement, its prehensile neck curled around its body in loneliness. I did other stuff and got an energy audit and donate money and stuff. But I did not stop global warming and neither did Al Gore. It is still here, droning on, quietly wanting to kill us, and our demise will be narrated by Al Gore’s droning voice.

The fact that global warming as an idea is all mathy and graphy and incomprehensibly bleak prompted scientist-filmmaker Randy Olsen to declare the crisis “boring” and a PR disaster, illustrated with “all the same shots of “melting glaciers, polar bears, carbon emissions.” Olsen doesn’t mince words in an interview with Spiegel Online: he calls science blogs posting articles about the minutia of climate change “boredom so putrefied and crystallized it’s in an unadulterated form that could make even a robot want to commit suicide.” I know my science- and journalist and science-journalist friends will leap out of their seats and off of their balance balls and treadmill desks in anger at that quote and also say that this is exactly what makes their jobs interesting and important: bridging that gap and preventing the robots from killing themselves on crystallized boredom. Actually, that is Olsen’s point, too.

Olsen’s idea is that Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, should have told a story, such as the fascinating question of why the world was able to address—and kind of solve—the problem with the ozone hole (yay, us!) but hasn’t done that for global warming.

At first I wanted to hate on this guy, but he’s right. Sort of. And provocative–despite the fact that I love An Inconvenient Truth so much that I bought my own copy to have as a personal talisman to shade myself during the apocalypse, and despite the fact that I give money to anything that Al Gore tells me to in order to throw pennies at said approaching apocalypse.

But, to quibble (which is my only survival skill), Olsen also puts too much on the scientists and science-communicators, and I think he’s missing a bigger point, which is that we (humans in our high-school ways) will go out of our way to look at GIFs of kittens in wrapping paper and give our brains a rest from the thought of mass extinction. It’s not the message that’s boring as much as the fact that we, people, the problem, are boredom-averse and kitten-GIF-prone.

So, without further ado, here are reasons why Mass Death Really Is and Will Be Boring Big Time and why if we’re going to confront boredom, we have to first admit our boredom and take it apart into its component parts, some of which we will recycle and the rest we will use to build solar panels.

1. Death limits one’s social life.

I have never died, so I don’t know whether it would be boring or not. There is the dramatic final moment, the struggle for breath, but really—there’s not much to look forward to. And the lead-up to it can be excruciating and scary, I am told. And I imagine our collective deaths might be very boring, especially with sputtering cable as the brown-outs disrupt our service and our programs. Pain can certainly be boring, and starvation (as one example) has to offer both the opportunity for putting everything in perspective but also takes the cake (sorry) for sheer repetitiveness.

2. No flowers at the funeral. This is a huge problem. If huge swathes of us die together, we each miss out on something we have secretly fantasized about since our parents grounded us for the first time: the idea of everyone being sorry for everything at our lavish or tastefully simple memorial service. We don’t get our playlist and slideshow and moment in the sun if everybody’s crowding the stage. It’s enough to make one feel meaningless, which is BORING. Truly!

3. Zoos will suck, because of all the species extinctions and such.

4. Thinking about all the time I have wasted on “important and painstaking tasks” that an apocalypse such as ours is BORING.

As one example, I have told my son to brush his teeth 5 times every morning, every day, since he was a toddler. In and of itself this was boring, as are many parenting tasks, but they’re made mostly bearable because they seem to be an investment in a developing human who will one day become an adult and invent a new cloud-seeding device that will bring rain when we are all parched and dying. But if he’s out on the edge of some highway scavenging roadkill, his commitment to teeth brushing is only going to be a hindrance that makes him squeamish about his new life on the edge of subsistence. (He’ll be alone because I’ll be dead. I’m fragile—I’ll go quick).

5. Less intellectual stimulation and no “future” to plan for unless I am dreaming of coming back as a cockroach.

I like to read, and reading is interesting. I am a personal essayist, so I get off on esoteric distinctions about the positioning of a narrator in a narrative. I have all this expertise that will suddenly be useless. So that’s a bummer. My main form of intellectual entertainment: gone. Instead we’ll all be living in a world like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Well, some of us will be. I’ll be one of those people who will get eaten right away. That’s who you kill first: the personal essayists. But then again, maybe if I find Randy Olsen, he’d hook me up, because he says that the story of the big Bake-Sale has to be told in a way that’s personal so that people can get it, using “the narrative instinct.” Okay, Randy, this is my audition to be on your team. If I can’t get on Randy’s, I want to be with Bear Grylls.

6. It is a universally acknowledged truth that nobody likes to fuck up.

Global warming feels like a big fuck-up because it is. I didn’t start the fire, as Billy Joel annoyingly sings, but here I am every day shoveling fuel onto it. Like the Germans alive during Hitler’s reign, we could be wracking our brains with ways to self-immolate and do something drastic to put our bodies in front of the tracks or in traffic or whatever it might take (even Al Gore doesn’t seem to know), but I don’t see many of us lighting up in that way. So there’s the horrible but vague responsibility thing, which leads to a curdling regret in the stomach. I have to say that curdling regret is the least sexy emotion known to mankind. Let’s think about Jennifer Lawrence instead. By the way, if you are beset with this stomach curdling, as I am, please buy Mary Pipher’s book The Green Boat because it is like a temporary antacid and makes you less want to give up.

7. Kids dying: right. That’s not boring, that’s excruciating, but we call it boring because it lives near excruciating in the “Shit, No!” center of our brain. For God’s sake, I was driving behind a pediatric transport ambulance yesterday on the highway and I started to cry. The ambulance was decorated with images of fingerpaint handprints. Put a knife in my eye. And inside was one North American kid who had health insurance and who might have had a broken collarbone or something. But the big Fish Fry would involve lots of kids. White kids, privileged kids who have massive Lego collections, including my son. Just think of the waste of all that money spent purely on Legos. I should have spent all that money on buying a plot of land for subsistence farming (when I couldn’t even raise a head of broccoli in my pathetic two-foot garden). I really should have developed a completely different skill set. And I didn’t. I fucked up. (Back to # 6.)

8. This Story is so Boring Because It Has Happened Before! I Already Saw This One!

Here’s the messed up obviousness: kids die all over the place, every day, of preventable diseases like malaria and dysentery caused by contaminated water. That is also “boring,” by which we mean: Holy Fuck. What the hell can fix that? My twenty bucks, really? Then how come it keeps happening? How much money do you need to fix that forever? Couldn’t you just tax us all and prevent that from ever happening again? Oh there’s all kinds of geopolitical issues involved including the IMF and debt to the World Bank and … naaarrrgggghhhh. Where is Bono? Bono is the closest thing we have to Bat Man. Can’t he just fix this?

Boring is the idea that the same shit keeps happening. Yes, as always, through the recorded history of human existence since colonialism, the brown people near the Equator and on islands and shorelines with smaller capital reserves and fewer opportunities to invest in infrastructure will get it in the teeth.

It’s boring when the sequel is just the same as the first 100 volumes.

9. Uneasy is Boring. Super-uneasy vagueness lives right near the “Shit, No!” brain-center.

Boring is the idea that the authority figures promising security and telling us to sock our pennies away might be wrong: instead of skimming our money into retirement accounts, we should invest in the rest of the world, in a post-currency place where hydroponics and water filters and swamp coolers will ensure some small measure of survival for us and others. But… is that right? I don’t trust the stock market but I don’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t even make a gingerbread house last night out of graham crackers with my kid. And really, I also really don’t even know what I’m teaching next semester or how to get my son to read more. So Super-Uneasy is pushed to the background by Daily-Uneasy. It’s only when I am done with grading that I even really think about the big GW (not the other GW, who is happily making an oil painting as you read this).

10. There are no aliens. If there were aliens with green bile and nefarious shiny outfits to fight, we’d be all over this shit like Will Smith. There would be web-cams and guns and t-shirts and boobs and kitten GIFs and cake and everything good.

And in the conclusion I am supposed to make the Final Countdown less boring, but really, it’s a yawn. I’d much rather watch something else.

***

Sonya Huber is an assistant professor of creative writing at Fairfield University and a faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Sonora Review, Creative Nonfiction, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth Genre, Topic, Passages North, Main Street Rag, Literary Mama, Kaleidoscope, Hotel Amerika, and Sports Literate, among others; in anthologies including Learning to Glow (University of Arizona Press), Young Wives’ Tales  (Seal Press), Bare Your Soul (Seal Press), Reading for the Maternally Inclined: The Best of Literary Mama (Seal Press), Mama Ph.D. (Rutgers University Press), and Campus, Inc. (Prometheus Books); in periodicals including The Washington Post Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Psychology Today, In These Times, Sojourner, and Earth Island Journal. More information available at http://www.sonyahuber.com.

Secularism and Compartmentalization

Secularism and Compartmentalization

by

Kenneth Nichols

Nearly twenty years ago, my loving father spent some of his evenings coaching my T-ball team in the fields behind Reynolds Elementary. Early in his tenure, he knelt and told me that I wouldn’t be able to play shortstop as much as I wanted.

“Why not?” I asked. “Aren’t I a good fielder?”

“Of course you are,” he said. “But everyone needs to get a chance and a coach must be fair.”

Parents are renowned for their perfectly natural ability to compartmentalize: to exempt certain people and situations from rational thinking in order to avoid the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that would result if the truth were confronted in earnest. Many parents believe, in spite of evidence, that their child is the kindest and most intelligent around.

The phenomenon, for better and worse, carries over to the political realm. The secular worldview varies from most other popular modes of contemporary political thought in that clarity of thought is favored over the strict adherence to the dogmatic base of an ideology. To make a policy judgment, the secularist doesn’t consult a moral code established by dubious and supernatural authorities. Instead, the secularist seeks to purge him or herself of flawed thinking that is pitted with fallacious logic.

For example, should Americans have the right of same-sex marriage? Secularists consult the Constitution, the deep well from which our rights are derived, and find that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. In the interest of thoroughness, we may ask, “What’s the harm?” and find none. Those who claim otherwise are appealing to tradition, making a priori assumptions and otherwise demonstrating that their convoluted thinking, if represented visually, would resemble an M.C. Escher pen-and-ink drawing.

Given the importance of logical thought in governance, it seems problematic that Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is the only open atheist in Congress. On the other hand, it’s not very hard to come up with a Catholic lawmaker whose voting record reinforces abortion rights. (John Kerry was famously excommunicated for violating this Church doctrine.) Another Roman Catholic, Louisiana Senator David Vitter, voted to broaden the use of the death penalty in spite of the fact that he ostensibly prays to such a victim each night.

Both of these lawmakers (and countless others) abandon the teachings of their Church to vote in the manner they feel is best for society. The cause of this disconnect is the same for all individuals who employ compartmentalization in an effort to exist in both the real world and the fantasy of their choice. In a 2013 article for Scientific American, Dr. Michael Shermer claims that people construct “logic-tight compartments…analogous to watertight compartments in a ship” that allow otherwise intelligent people to hold improbable beliefs such as global warming denialism and that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 were an inside job. (Dr. Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things is a treat for anyone who wonders how someone as brilliant as Dr. Linus Pauling could believe that large doses of vitamin C could prevent and cure cancer.)

As I said, the ideal of the secular process of thought is an understanding of the world that is devoid of delusion. The secular individual seeks to understand the universe on its own terms, not his or her own. Alas, we have evolved to be pattern-seeking animals. Our very brains engage in perpetual civil war: the left side remembers and calculates and the right side determines what the data means. The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey indicates that only 16.1% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with a religion. What are pure secularists to do?

It seems that we must take comfort that we have many allies whose powerful minds are laden with Shermer’s “logic-tight compartments.” No less a secularist than the late Christopher Hitchens adored his friend Dr. Francis Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project and is now Director of the National Institutes of Health. At first glance, Dr. Collins may inspire fear in the heart of the secular progressive. A self-professed atheist, Dr. Collins converted to Christianity after a patient merely asked him about his religious beliefs. After attempting to defend his lack of belief, Dr. Collins said “suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.” Most any atheist or agnostic who has engaged in such an informal debate will agree there’s a big leap from “there’s no evidence to suggest that a supernatural deity may exist” to Dr. Collins’s fallacy-laden understanding of atheism itself: “If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.”

Is it time to ring the alarm bells and to lament that someone such as Dr. Collins is in such a position of power in the scientific and political community? Not at all. (As a skeptic, of course, I’m open to changing my mind should sufficient evidence present itself.) Dr. Collins stridently rejects intelligent design, the concept best described as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” Dr. Collins, I understand, has not stood in the way of embryonic stem cell research. (Sad to say the same can’t be said for Congress.) Dr. Collins, a breathtakingly intelligent man, has compartmentalized his beliefs, devising a philosophical construct in which religion and science are—to him—not only compatible, but complementary.

Perhaps the immediate goal of the secular community should be to point out that our fallacy-prone friends and authority figures engage in this compartmentalization. Many Christians who chant, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” still eat shrimp, wear cotton/polyester blends and refuse to “take up serpents” and understand that drinking poison will kill them. Belief in any aspect of the supernatural, religious or otherwise, requires a person to put these beliefs in one of Dr. Shermer’s “logic-tight compartments,” where it will be safe from reality and reason. So many of these valises have already been cast away—slavery is illegal, women have the vote, miscegenation is only a problem to an irrational few—more are sure to follow. The resultant cognitive dissonance causes unpleasantness at times, but this societal conflict is a necessity if the United States is going to continue its path toward fulfilling the secular ideal laid out in its founding documents. If you read the accounts of those who protested Loving v. Virginia, it’s clear that they were very upset. Those who are on the wrong side of history and of secularism deserve the same response: “Too bad.”

Wanna check my Shermer quote? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-minds-compartments-create-conflicting-beliefs

Pauling. Isaac loved the man, but I think he was bummed by this. http://mostlyscience.com/2013/02/logical-fallacies-and-you-what-you-need-to-know-when-doing-your-own-research/

Pew. http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations

Collins quote: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/the-strange-case-of-francis-collins

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

by Letitia Trent

I had a professor during my undergraduate years (one those old-fashioned liberal arts professors who believed that intimately knowing Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s Lear was a prerequisite for being a fully-functioning citizen of earth) that defined a great book as a book that shows you what it means to be human. He meant the great, big (and, unfortunately, primarily European or American) books, like War and Peace or Middlemarch, in which an enormous cast of characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, figuring out what it means to be a citizen, part of a family, a soldier, an artist, a lover, or a parent. I appreciate these kinds of books, too, books that are willing to explicitly wrestle with questions about how a person should be in the world and do not fear the explicitly political or philosophical. I don’t know how anyone writes books like this anymore. As Matthew Rohrer writes in the first poem from his book Destroyer and Preserver:

The oldest songs are
breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement

What kind of writer has the gall to tell people how to live now, when there are no fixed certainties and no unassailable truths? This is not an original question, but one that I find myself bumping into over and over again as I read contemporary literature and poetry that dares to directly touch on the political as Destroyer and Preserver does. While I’ve read many contemporary poetry books that comment on the paranoia and rise of some fervid, defensive American identity that happened post 9-11 (Christian Hawkey’s Citizen Of comes to mind in particular), I don’t see many poets writing in what comes close to straightforward confessional lyric touching the issue of politics aside from Rohrer. Sometimes, when writing about war from the distance of a relatively safe place, the lyric, personal “I” can seem limited, small, stupid, unable to fully grasp anything important from the perspective comfort. Perhaps this is why many poets who are fairly privileged (I know that I am one of them) and who have never seen battle try not to tackle something as large as “the war”.

Destroyer and Preserver tries to show us something about what it means to be a middle-class, materially comfortable human in this particular time in the United States, one in which foreign wars and news of slaughter in countries in which we are linked by politics and war filter in and out of our consciousness through reports from Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, seeming both incredibly important and completely divorced from our everyday lives. I specify that the book is about middle-class life because it differs from many other overtly political books from the standpoint it takes: the speaker is comfortable, white, male, and a father. This is not a book that howls from the edges or speaks as a witness to political and social turmoil. I don’t mention this to belittle the book, but to make it clear from what perspective the book addresses the political. In Carolyn Forche’s introduction to The Poetry of Witness, she writes about the privilege of being a North American in the 20th and 21st centuries: “Wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” This space is where Destroyer and Preserver comes from.

Part of the book is about the dance between enjoying the privilege we have as North Americans to live our lives relatively unscathed by war and the responsibility to acknowledge that our privileged lives are partly built on the backs of the suffering of other people. Rohrer’s book differs from those big books about morality in that it’s a product of its time, and therefore the poems don’t tell us anything definitive about how to balance joy and responsibility: the subject is not knowing, of feeling guilty for running away to poetry or family life or dreams (the book is full of dreams), and of being politically engaged but not politically engaged enough to leave what is comfortable behind. The speaker in these poems spends his days taking care of small children, recovering from hangovers, and walking around a city as news of what’s happening in the Middle East filters in and out of the central consciousness of the poems. For example, in the poem “Casualties,” the poet’s small son asks “are soldiers good or bad?”, and the speaker meets his son’s confusion with his own:

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of the ship.
He looks just like me.

The poem leaves us with an image of the plane, having just dropped a bomb on the house and desert, gliding through the sky and being returned to the United States, “to be washed and put away”. Throughout the book, images of war are and desperation are washed and put away and then continually taken out again to be examined, as with the speaker of “Poets With History/Poems Without History”:

… and the melting icebergs crumple

like the prisoners shot in the side

I move through the days remarkably sinuously

and spinning inside

I washed the dishes two or three times a day

with hot water on and on

like a dream behind the yellow gloves

from which I too cannot awaken

though my son is done with school

and holds my hand on the walk home

the feeling of falling backwards

into the bed at night fills me

each time

with sweet content

all the people rounded up in camps

have a look in their eyes

that can’t reach us now

Rohrer is at his best when the speaker of the poems sees this point of tension between a comfortable life and the knowledge that so many other people are not able to have that comfort: the poems are electric when the speaker is both conflicted and ultimately a failure at keeping the high moral ground. They falter, though, when the speaker seems to imply a particular stance is the “good” one: in “For Which I Love You,” the speaker congratulates a lover for a fairly standard, simplistic affirmation against “hate” which reads a little bit like self-congratulation for having the “right” political point of view.

It would be unfair to say that this is only a political book: several short, lyric poems punctuate the book, ranging from records of sad, contradictory moments to poems that seem like sheer celebrations of everyday life, such as “The Smell of Frying Fish.” It’s the context of these poems that makes them political: images of war surface throughout the book in poems that at first seem to be about something completely outside of war, and so these moments of domestic bliss mean something more: is the speaker giving in to forgetfulness or resisting despair by living in the moment (as cliché as that can’t help but sound) by fully embracing the given world around him?

Rohrer’s poems are largely dreamy, personal lyrics that roll from matter-of-fact observation to gentle surrealism, creating poems that seem casually tossed-off yet completely controlled within one lyric event, world, or emotional/narrative moment. You could call it domestic surrealism, but Rohrer’s observations are more about finding the literal strange in the familiar than in creating strangeness. Still yet, reading the book felt too easy: the poems are easy to read and pleasing because Rohrer is good at this kind of poetry and knows what he is doing. I couldn’t help but feel that Rohrer was coasting and that these poems are a slightly toned-down, less boisterous versions of ground he’d already covered in his first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, and his subsequent books. Only in the long poems of the book (“Believe” and “The Terrorists”) does Rohrer seem to stretch beyond his familiar gently joking, gently serious tone.

I can’t say that Destroyer and Preserver left me with anything definitive about how to be a conscientious person in a complex world, but it left me with a useful confusion and the realization of how often I, too, retreat into what’s comfortable in order to forget my own great fortune. I’m not the soldier who crumples, the face behind the cage, or the person whose home has been bulldozed. I have the privilege of forgetfulness, and I exercise it far too often.

***

Letitia Trent‘s work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, and Folio, among others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, was published by Sundress Press in early 2012. She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.

The Jackpot

The Jackpot

by Letitia Trent

The monogamous are like the very rich. They have to find their poverty. They have to starve themselves enough.
-Adam Philip

We are too flush

our bosky hedge funds
are fecund—
we calculate the slow
growth the return

but let’s try to poormouth
again I’ll be Cinderella
pre-slipper and you
be a cockney starveling

we’ll settle
in the slums together
hold struck matches—
our barren grate

won’t bloom—
against our fingers
where they have purpled
in December

we’ll wolf cold
casseroles of aspic and crackers
afterward still famished

we’ll shake off our
poor white delicates
and glut until surfeited see

how easy
it can be—the slow slide
soft as
a rummage sale t-shirt—

when you have nothing else
to say take me
into your alms
and mean it?

***

Letitia Trent has had work appear in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, Folio, The Journal, and Blazevox, among others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, is available from Sundress Publications. She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony. She writes film review for the blog Bright Wall in a Dark Room. The above poem is included in One Perfect Bird and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Help Them Free Their Words

Help Them Free Their Words: Tom Kerr discusses his work with Steve Champion and his death row memoir

an interview by Jason Tucker

An associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, Tom Kerr began working with Steve Champion while teaching an undergraduate writing course. The idea was to get college students to engage with people and worlds beyond their own. Naturally, this happened to Tom as well, forging an unlikely friendship and giving personal depth to otherwise abstract political philosophy. After much work and much negotiating of the complex ethics of such a project, the two have shaped Champion’s story into the memoir Dead to Deliverance. READ MORE

“Blowfly” by Andrew Hudgins

Blowfly

by Andrew Hudgins


Half awake, I was imagining
a friend’s young lover, her ash blonde hair, the smooth
taut skin of twenty. I imagined her
short legs and dimpled knees. The door scraped open,
but eyes closed, I saw nothing. The mattress sagged.
She laid her head on my chest, and murmured love
against my throat, almost humming, approaching song,
so palpable I could hold her only chastely,
if this was chaste. I couldn’t move my hand
even to caress her freckled shoulder.
So this is how imagination works, I thought,
sadly. And when at last she spoke,
she spoke with the amused voice of my wife,
my wife who was at work but also here,
pleased at the confusion she was causing.
This is a lesson about flesh, isn’t it?
I asked. Blowfly, she whispered on my throat
as we made tense, pensive love. Blowfly, blowfly. READ MORE