Still Outraged at 100: Muriel Rukeyser’s Centennial

Muriel Rukeyser has been dead for 33 years, but we just can’t keep away from her. On the occasion of her recent centennial, Chanel Dubofsky and I gave her a nickname and talked about the ways this incredible lady built essential bridges between art, activism, and work. 

Courtesy of the Paris Review.

Leah Falk: 

So–I guess I would like to start by asking you how you first came to/ heard about Muriel Rukeyser, or if we can give her a posthumous nickname, “The Ruk.”

Chanel Dubofsky: 

So I think I heard about, um, The Ruk in college. I was in this weird band of poetry people.

LF: The best band.

CD:  YES. Even though I’m not actually a poet, we needed each other. Anyway. Someone brought The Ruk to a gathering, and she immediately felt important to me.

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The Week in Day Jobs, Call for Submissions

In case you missed it, Ali Shapiro weighed in at the Rumpus with a brilliant cartoon on selling your poet-skills to hiring managers. And “being into day jobs is really trendy right now,” at least for the set that used to scorn them (James Bond?). According to Amy Gutman, quitting dramatically so you can go home and write = out, figuring out how to balance your job with your creative pursuits = in.

In other news, CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: if you’re a writer with an MFA who has recently completed a job search, or is in the middle of one, I’m interested in your story. Send me a summary of what you’d like to write about or a completed piece (about 700 words max) and a little bit about who you are.

All These Activities Have Nourished One Another: An Interview with Martha Collins

Martha's 7.05 Pictures 009

When did you begin to identify as an activist?

In the late 1960s, I left the rather sheltered world of the Midwest, where I’d grown up and was attending graduate school, to teach at the urban campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Unlike my Iowa life (which was extremely white and middle class), U.Mass-Boston had a very diverse student population, in terms of race, class, and age. A commuter school, it attracted many first-generation students; the average age, at some point, was something like 27 or 28, and the majority of the students worked, many of them full-time.

Almost immediately, teaching those students began to expand my social  consciousness. How could I not be concerned about social conditions in my country when students with limited finances were struggling to balance school, work, and family? How could I not think about racial prejudice, some of which became particularly nasty during the Boston school bussing crisis of the early 1970s?

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Activist Writers: Chanel Dubofsky on Fiction and Privilege

chanel

The evening the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced, I thought that somehow I could not pay attention to it. That’s white privilege, in case you needed an illustration. I can turn off my computer and go down the street or to sleep and not think about it, because for me, a white skinned Jewish girl, if I don’t think too hard about it, it can actually seem like it doesn’t matter. The spoiler is, of course, that I couldn’t not think about it. I couldn’t think about anything else, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the gross creeping of white guilt, something I try not to entertain because it’s so unproductive, so paralyzing, so indulgent. But there it was. The thing about privilege is that you cannot give it away. Not really. You can pretend you don’t have it, people do that all the time. You can step aside and make a space for someone else, but you always have your privilege, regardless of whether or not you want it. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.

Writing is the thing I count on when I can’t figure out how to maneuver through the world. I usually sort through sexism, racism and other disturbing daily social phenomenon with essays, but these days my job is actually to write fiction, seeing as I’m in an MFA program.  I’ve never felt like it was harder to justify making art.  For days, it felt like the most privileged, smug thing I could possibly do. I’d written a blog post shortly before the verdict came in, about my process of writing fiction (anxiety, caffeine, procrastination, frantic typing, delirious joy, exhaustion, anxiety…), and when I looked at it later, I knew I could not possibly post it. It was irrelevant. It was nothing. It was maybe even cruel.

I’ve been thinking about endings lately-the ones that are neat and tidy and satisfying, the ones that have been earned, as well as those that are vague and sloppy and ultimately realistic. Trayvon Martin did not deserve any kind of ending at the age of seventeen. There is no age at which he could deserve the ending that he got, and yet, while so many of us are shocked and bruised by the verdict, we also know that this is the reality of living in a racist country.

Being a progressive activist means understanding that people are complicated, that we all have multiple identities that we engage with to varying degrees. It’s not like it isn’t possible to be many things at once-writers know that, maybe better than anyone else. Sherwood Anderson wrote, “The whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” There are entire books to be written about how to responsibly write about people who are not us without exoticizing, or stereotyping, but for the sake of this piece, I’ll just say that writing, particularly fiction, is-or should be-an exercise in empathy and ethics. For that reason, and thousands of others, it’s important. It can keep us alive.

Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Activist Writers: Gwendolyn Brooks

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

In every poetry class I’ve taught so far, I’ve slipped Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic “We Real Cool” into the first week or so. My students, having read the poem silently to themselves, respond to the rhyme, the three beat lines, the language that seems to bare its face while still hiding something. When I ask them what they think the speaker thinks of the “we,” they sometimes say that he or she is warning the young pool players or making fun of them, even as the speaker inhabits their late-lurking, straight-striking world.

But after they hear a recording of Ms. Brooks herself reading the poem, something changes. Suddenly, the first word of each line — “lurk,” “strike,” “jazz” — takes on a dotted rhythm, and the “we” that my students at first read as bearing a full third of each line’s weight becomes only a decoration, a grace note.

This can’t help but change their reading of the poem, one which only scratches the surface of Brooks’s commitment to writing honestly about the black communities she observed and moved within. Brooks was the first black author to win the Pulitzer prize and the first black female poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, but she didn’t use that success as an excuse to occupy only the mainstream. In her later career, she left Harper and Row to publish with a series of small black companies. She also called attention to the change in critics’ response to her work once she began publishing with these presses: some seemed to fear the political content of her work, and she believed that they “did not wish to encourage Black publishers.” Her two-volume autobiography, now considered among her most important prose works, was at first criticized for not containing enough personal information, or “domestic spats,” as Brooks put it.

Given her prolific career, her activism, and her constant effort to show black American lives in sharp focus, It’s no wonder that even the recorded sound of Brooks’s voice allows her own work to be heard more clearly and immediately by young readers. Moments after hearing “We Real Cool,” one recent student commented that Brooks had read the poem as though one of the poem’s verbs –“lurk late” or “die soon” — could totally eclipse the person, the “we,” doing it. As though “we” — the collective as well as the individual within it — could disappear in the action someone else sees.

 

This Week, Kicking off a Writer-Activist Feature

Hi everyone.

This blog strives to serve as a place for writers with day jobs to reflect on the balance between the work that earns them their living and the work that sustains their humanity, and the happy intersections between those types of work, whether they happen frequently or rarely. For every working person, work is to some extent caught up with his or her humanity: feeling useful, using one’s talents and skills, and supporting oneself or one’s family are all ways we continue to feel alive, necessary.

But for writers, work and humanity are particularly inextricable from each other: in our best writing, our job is to be brutally honest about what it means to be human, even if that means acknowledging the most painful, contradictory aspects of human behavior. To me, this also means that writers have an extra responsibility to pay attention to injustice—as Muriel Rukeyser put it, “If you refuse,/ wishing to be invisible, you choose/ Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.”

With that in mind, and as the sole person running this blog, I can’t pretend to any policy of political neutrality. In the perplexing and disturbing wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and in memory of Trayvon Martin and other victims like him, I feel compelled to return my attention to those writers—like Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich—whose day job was activism, and for whom writing and activism were in fact joined at the hip.

On this blog, I’ll feature activist writers, living or dead, starting this week—if you know of a living writer who would like to be interviewed, or if you’d like to recommend that I profile a famous writer-activist who’s no longer living, send their names my way.

Here, I’ve Been Named the Head of a Student Dope Ring: Richard Hugo on Day Jobs

RichardHugo

If you are a poet (or a fiction writer) with a day job, rush right out and read Richard Hugo’s essay “How Poets Make a Living,” in his celebrated collection The Triggering Town. The question of how it feels for a poet to work outside academia was one that Hugo, who worked for thirteen years at Boeing, dreaded. Did it matter what one did between the hours of 9 and 5? In “the real world”? “I hate that phrase ‘the real world,'” Hugo wrote. “Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it?”

Gems from “How Poets Make a Living” include Hugo’s discovery of a 1949 volume titled Advice to a Young Poet. Poets, according to one Llewelyn Powys, should “wash your underclothes with your own hand as though this extra persona fastidiousness were part of a religious rite…Aim at getting up half an hour earlier than other people and walking if possible to catch a glimpse of the sea every morning.” If Powys lived today, it sounds like he might join forces with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hugo finds all these romantic prescriptions absurd. His own comparisons between the business and academic worlds are level-headed, selfless and hilarious:

“There [business]: 62,000 employees and no one cares that I write poems.

Here [academia]: When I first start, twenty-six employees in the department and three of them hate me because I write poems.

There: Those who know I write poems don’t seem to assume anything is special about me.

Here: I’ve been named the head of a student dope ring. A student informant tells the administration I’ve advised students to print and distribute copies of a ‘dirty poem’ about the campus. I am a homosexual. I am a merciless womanizer. I throw wild parties. I write my poems in Italian and then translate them into English. I come to class dressed in dirty, torn T-shirts. I am a liberal, a reactionary, a communist, a Nazi.”

Hugo gives the caveat: “I’m apt to sound too self-assured about the unimportance of a poet’s job because no matter what I’ve done for a living I’ve gone on writing, and because with one exception I’ve never found the initiating subject of a poem where I worked.”

 

 

As I Lay Dying (While Working The Night Shift At This Power Plant)

Faulkner in a rare leisurely moment.

You may have recently heard that James Franco has bulldozed, ahem, directed, written, and starred in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But does Franco know that Faulkner finished the novel while working the night shift at a power plant? “His primary motivation was to have long periods of uninterrupted time for his own work” (sound familiar?) and he wrote the novel in only six weeks.

1929, as it happens, was a banner year for Faulkner: he also wrote Sanctuary, published Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, and wrote a fair amount of short fiction. Another day job of Faulkner’s was working as the postmaster at Ole Miss–by all accounts, he was terrible at it.

Did Faulkner care about work-life balance? Did he stress, maybe, about whether he should have looked for a more permanent job? Unclear. But it was about this time that he would say: “Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.”

In sum: back to work.