Poem of the Day: Malcolm X, February 1965

i will die this month. how
i do not know. still there
is much work to be done. i
am afraid not for myself but
for betty and the girls. some
nights i stay awake looking
out the window, a gun in my
hand. i know how cruel people
can be. i have known hatred and
blindness. there are brothers
waiting to do me harm. i will
die for them. i will love them
as only i can. may allah be my
witness.
Ethelbert Miller, “Malcolm X, February 1965” from First Light: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by Ethelbert Miller. Reprinted by permission of Black Classic Press.

Source: First Light: New and Selected Poems(1994)

E. Ethelbert Miller

Biography
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Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1) [EPISODE]

In 1933, a group of architects boarded a ship and set sail from Marseille, France to Athens, Greece. On board were several of the world’s most famous modernist architects and artists, including Erno Goldfinger, Le Corbusier, Alvar Alto, and dozens of others.

There was a silent film made of the voyage that shows the architects on the deck in short-sleeved white shirts and sunglasses. The cruise was the setting for the International Congress of Modern Architecture, commonly known by its French acronym, CIAM.

Ville Radieuse plan by Le Corbusier

The subject of this particular congress was city-planning. The members of CIAM thought that cities were too congested, noisy, polluted and chaotic. And they believed some of these problems could be solved by separating out the functions of a city into distinct zones for housing, working, recreation, and traffic.

Zoning wasn’t a new idea, but the architects from CIAM wanted to take it farther. The living spaces would be in high-rise apartments so that the ground-level was open for recreation and collective spaces—live in the sky, play on the ground. Cars would even drive on elevated roads so that pedestrians could have the space below all to themselves. There would also be separate districts for industry and shopping. Where old European cities were winding, cluttered and polluted, this new one would be linear, open, and clean, with everything in its proper place.

Pedestrians and cars on different levels in ideal city as envisioned by Le Corbusier

Modernists also saw this new kind of city as capable of providing more egalitarian conditions. They wanted beautiful housing that everyone could afford. They had big dreams, but the 1930s was a time of worldwide economic depression. But the rebuilding that followed the Second World War provided a chance to start over.




Le Corbusier with students and models of (unbuilt) urban design proposals

In 1943, the Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) published a book called Charte d’Athènes (The Athens Charter). It outlined exactly how to build new cities in the way the architects from CIAM had talked about back in 1933. Le Corbusier traveled the world talking about these utopian ideas for city building, and governments liked what they heard—not so much for the utopian ideals, but rather for the price, because what Corbusier proposed was, in fact, very cheap. Concrete, the Modernist building material of choice, was inexpensive, and building apartments in high-rises required less land than building stand-alone homes.

Original master plan for the Bijlmemeer (or Bijlmer for short)

After the war, developments all over the world were built with CIAM’s modernist principles in mind, although they weren’t all pure expressions of CIAM and Le Corbusier’s ideas. Many cities took some of the ideas and left others. But the city planners of Amsterdam wanted to go further. They decided to build a new neighborhood, close to Amsterdam, that would be a CIAM blueprint— a perfect encapsulation of Modernist principles. It was called the Bijlmermeer, and it tested these ideas on a grand scale. When it was over, no one would ever try it again.

Pi de Bruijn was an architect in Amsterdam who, as a young man, was hired to help plan the Bijlmermeer. The utopian ideals of the project captured de Bruijn’s attention for seven years, as he worked as part of a team headed by an architect named Siegfried Nassuth. Nassuth was an idealist who felt the cities of the past had failed and needed to be rebuilt from scratch, using the modernist principles developed by CIAM.

There was never any question that the so-called Bijlmer (short for Bijlmermeer) would be made of tall concrete housing towers, but they did choose to arrange them in the unique shape of a honeycomb.

The hexagonal grid would allow each apartment to get some sunlight every day. The apartments were meant for the middle class, and no apartment was designed to be “better” than another. Every man would be equal to his neighbor. At one point, Pi de Bruijn proposed to have apartments on the ground, but lead architect Siegfried Nassuth would have none of it. The ground was meant to be a collective space for everyone, according to the principles of modernism.

When the first few buildings were finished in the late 1960s, advertisements depicted a paradise with modern apartment towers, surrounded by lush green grass and trees. De Bruijn and his wife moved into the complex in 1969. “I lived on the 9th floor,” he recalls, and “I had a four-room apartment: three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, beautiful bathroom, and a balcony that was two meters wide and twelve meters long. It was a paradise of a balcony.”

But there were also some immediate problems at the Bijlmer. A metro line was supposed to connect the new area with Amsterdam, but construction was delayed. For a while, there was only one dirt road leading out to the area. The designers had planned for a shopping are, but the shops didn’t come right away either, which meant there was no where to buy groceries.

Eventually the roads did begin to appear, and they were elevated above the ground, weaving in and out of the high rises. Driving through provided a spectacular view, but it was difficult to navigate or orient around a center, because there was nothing like a city center or town square—there were just identical concrete buildings arranged in a honeycomb formation. And there was no one to ask for directions, because there were no pedestrians on the elevated streets. De Bruijn complained about all of this, but his superiors told him to wait.

The Bijlmer, image by Richardkiwi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

And so de Bruijn waited, and waited. Other residents were not as patient. Disillusion set in and the waiting lists disappeared.

By the early 1970’s, as the Bijlmer was still being built, much of the world was already turning against the massive concrete apartment towers that modernists had pushed for in the 30s and 40s.

Pruitt Igoe in St Louis, had also been an experiment in the modernist principles of CIAM—it was constructed in 1954, and by the mid 1970s it was already so overrun with vacancies and crime that the city tore it down. The American urban planner Oscar Newman had theorized that is was the vast amount of common spaces that had lead to Pruitt Igoe’s downfall— these neglected spaces had become hiding places for criminals. He worried that the Bijlmer was likely to suffer the same fate.

Bijlmer view from a balcony, image by Hilton Teper (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even members of CIAM were starting to question and denounce this approach to building. The famous Dutch architect and CIAM member Aldo Van Eyck went on national TV and cried literal tears over what an awful concrete monstrosity Bijlmer was. Architect Rem Koolhaas said of the Bijlmermeer that it “offers boredom on heroic scale.”

Bijlmer as seen from above

Still, more buildings went up — massive concrete structures with around 400 apartments in each one. The Bijlmer steadily grew, even as the housing association that controlled the buildings had trouble finding enough tenants. In the end, 31 buildings went up, holding 13,000 apartments, though hundreds sat empty.

In addition to all the buildings there were also 13,000 storage spaces on the ground level, 31 parking garages, hundreds of elevators and staircases and common spaces and 110 kilometers or 68 miles of indoor ground-level corridors. There was so much space, and not enough people to fill it up, or watch over it

Yet there were still people who needed housing. In fact, there were thousands of newly arrived citizens, who had traveled across the Atlantic ocean and needed a place to live.

The Bijlmer would be that place.

Next time on 99% Invisible: Disaster hits the Bijlmer, and the future of this futuristic vision is called into question.

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Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices

Around Christmas, LitHub put up their round-up of The Most-Rejected Books of All Time (Of Those That Were Eventually Published), and the literary Internet chimed in—I chimed in, too, sharing that my forthcoming novel had been rejected 98 times.

The reality of rejection is not a new topic for lit mags or bookish media, and what often follows these articles is the chorus of authors who have had some kind of publishing success, or, in my case (and in the cases of countless others like me), at least enough success to feel comfortable sharing about rejection and to be able to conceptualize it as a pathway to print.

However, without a book or two, or at least a string of magazine appearances, those rejection numbers, whether it’s nine or 19 or 98, feel less like a badge of honor. I certainly wouldn’t have shared my number if my manuscript were not under contract. In fact, I had a higher number for my first novel, and I never talked about it frankly until the book was out. I also didn’t talk about how one agent wrote to me and said they could maybe sell it if I made the main character male instead of female. And I didn’t discuss the angry rejections I got—because my protagonist was so “unlikable”—I just kept trying to place it. As Roxane Gay has written, on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s important to not let rejection be validation.

While it’s true that writers absolutely must believe in their own work, must try to cultivate a thick skin, must be polite to editors (please, please be polite to editors), rejection and everything that comes with it—doubt, disappointment, demoralization—is real, and if we care about cultivating new voices, we must ask how we, as a community, can do better than patting ourselves on the back for our own moxie.

For all of the happy endings born of multiple rejections, I know there are writers out there with very good, even breakthrough stories and manuscripts who have given up at 20, or 50, or 97, just as there are writers who scraped together $30 dollars for a contest, and were not selected and who do not have the funds to apply again.

Recently, a writer emailed me and said she had been rejected a handful of times for her YA novel. I told her, nicely, I thought, that until she got to 100, she should get over it. She didn’t write me back.

I’ve said this so many times, to so many aspiring writers, this “100 rejections” thing. I’ve said it on panels. I’ve said it in workshops. I’ve said it in topical conversations and casual ones. I said it at a pizza place during a birthday party for a cousin when I was talking about having a day job.

I keep thinking about this. Emerging writers already know how hard it is. Shouldn’t we, instead of continuing the “tough it out” conversation, be more transparent about our own experiences and challenges?

(I’m not naïve about my particular contribution to this conversation—but four years ago, which is not so long, before my first book, I was just another writer in the slush. I never considered that I’d stop writing, but I did start to believe I would never have my own name on my own spine.)

Perhaps it’s better to make a different point, like about how unpredictable writing can be. For example, my most-read work to date is not the stories I worked on for over a decade, it’s not the novel I spent eight years on, it’s a guest post I dashed off about how many books don’t sell.

Or, how once, I had a story accepted in a print publication because I guess they liked it well enough but mostly they needed a very specific word count for their layout. I know this because the editor told me. I’m not really sure why he told me. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this information. It’s a decent magazine, and I submitted because I had read it, so now it’s there on my publication list with everything else.

A few weeks ago on the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams wrote about literary citizenship and the value we get from helping others alongside imploring writers to do their homework. Learn the business she says, because it is a business.

There’s certainly no obligation to share trusted contacts or make introductions to friendlies, and we don’t have to offer guidance towards specific publication outlets: it’s old, old advice, but writers should get a sense of who their targets are via their reading habits.

Still, in terms of the woman who wrote to me, I could have encouraged instead of being blasé. I could have asked her how she was targeting her submissions, as careful targeting will cut down on heartbreak. I could have asked her any number of questions that were supportive rather than dismissive. I could have sent her a link to a success story, instead of trotting out the 100 rejections narrative again.

If nothing else, I certainly could have been much more transparent about how it has felt, collecting so many rejections. I will always believe that it’s foolish to give up at only three or four, but it takes some real time to get to 100 or beyond. It can take literal years. I could have shared how much it is a drain trying to stay positive for myself even if I am not always positive externally. I could have shared how I keep all the rejections in an alphabetized card file so I can look at them and remind myself that I am actually doing tangible work, not just moving pixels around on a screen.

I could have shared about how I talk sometimes to writer friends about re-imaging rejection as “reminder”—how when a publication or press or an agent declines, it’s just a nudge to submit again, elsewhere.

It’s a nice idea, in theory. In practice, it’s a lot of trips to the post office or a lot of time on Submittable. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only way to get there.

If I had read the LitHub article before I had a book, I would have thought, Well, that’s nice for them to be finally published, what about the rest of us. We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more “likeable,” it’s absolutely a better book for this effort.

You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.

If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the 100 rejections scenario, but I really hope not.

When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through 11 drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.

Image Credit: Flickr/Judith E. Bell.

The post Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices appeared first on The Millions.

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Poem of the Day: Nina’s Blues

Your body, hard vowels
In a soft dress, is still.
What you can’t know
is that after you died
All the black poets
In New York City
Took a deep breath,
And breathed you out;
Dark corners of small clubs,
The silence you left twitching
On the floors of the gigs
You turned your back on,
The balled-up fists of notes
Flung, angry from a keyboard.
You won’t be able to hear us
Try to etch what rose
Off your eyes, from your throat.
Out you bleed, not as sweet, or sweaty,
Through our dark fingertips.
We drum rest
We drum thank you
We drum stay.
Cornelius Eady, "Nina’s Blues," from Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems, published by Putnam. Copyright 2008 by Cornelius Eady. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems(Putnam, 2008)

Cornelius Eady

Biography
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Machines for Living In: Le Cobusier’s Pivotal “Five Points of Architecture” [ARTICLE]

Le Corbusier was a painter, writer, architect and planner, but he was also an adept promoter of novel designs and theories. So when he debuted his Maison Dom-Ino concept home, it boasted a light and elegant form, but was also cleverly named — its title referenced the look and modularity of gaming “dominoes” (with dots extruded to form columns) as well as “domus,” the Latin word for house.

Maison Dom-Ino by Le Corbusier

In this project, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier (or simply: Corbu), synthesized prefabrication, flexibility and minimalism. The design featured thin reinforced concrete floors supported by slim concrete columns. He described his solution as “a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans” to allow for “the construction of the dividing walls at any point on the facade or the interior.” At a time when load-bearing walls and masonry construction were the norm, this was an unusual approach to structural engineering. It would go on to inform much of his life’s work.

Corbu also had radical ideas when it came to architectural ornamentation, rejecting decorative traditions as outdated in the Machine Age. Critiquing the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, he wrote: “The religion of beautiful materials is in its final death agony…. The almost hysterical onrush in recent years toward this quasi-orgy of decor is only the last spasm of a death already predictable.” He believed the the modern world had evolved beyond the need for decorative frills — useful, well-designed things would fill the void, not just in architecture, but for furniture, furnishings and fixtures, too.

Corbu’s views were shaped by other schools of thought (like the Bauhaus) and other Modernists, including Adolf Loos, who wrote in Ornament and Crime: “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.” Many prominent architects would go on to reject ornamentation, eschewing traditional styles for sleek minimalist looks, in part thanks to the writings of Loos and Corbu. In the 1920s, Corbu published his own influential book, Toward an Architecture, in which he famously wrote “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (“A house is a machine for living in”). It reflected his functionalist vision for the future of domestic design.

Le Corbusier compares ancient ruins with sleek modern machines

The volume also contained a critical manifesto, Five Points of Architecture. These points expanded further upon ideas he explored in the Maison Dom-Ino, laying out a blueprint for contemporary domiciles free from structural conventions and historical precedents. The five points are interrelated, and can be summarized as follows:

  • Pilotis” (columns) used to lift up buildings and create open spaces
  • Free-form interior designs, enabled by structural columns
  • Free-form facade designs, liberated from load-bearing functions
  • Horizontal windows to provide even daylight across rooms
  • Rooftop gardens on flat roofs to protect concrete and create space

Corbu also practiced what he preached. By the late 1920s he had begun work on what is now one of his most well-known projects: the Villa Savoye. It was the physical embodiment of his five points, and this video does an excellent job of showing precisely how:

Corbu lifted up and supported the structure using concrete pilotis. In turn, interior columns freed him to create open floor plans and non-structural facades with long and narrow window strips (which would have been impossible if the exterior walls were load-bearing). On top of the home sat a roof garden, conceptually: a slice of the landscape lifted up, offsetting the footprint of the house with lofted green space.

The Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, image by Valueyou (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For Corbu, the interplay of masses and light made the residence beautiful — its aesthetic was a product of function and geometry. “The plan is pure,” he boasted, “exactly made for the needs of the house …. It is poetry and lyricism, supported by technique.”

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, image by Victor Grigas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the Villa Savoye, the lineage of Corbu’s design can be traced both backward (to the Maison Dom-Ino) and forward to other now-famous works of Modernist residential architecture, including the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and the Glass House by Phillip Johnson.

Glass House by Philip Johnson, image by Staib (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But Corbu’s five points and Villa Savoye did more than just shape residential architecture — they also informed decades of urban design, and, eventually, a series of vertical urban villages in the sky.

Coming up on 99pi: Functionalist plans for the future — new cities and vertical villages as “machines for living in”

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“Awesomeness will step into the room”: An Essay Class Interviews Barry Maxwell

I discovered Barry Maxwell—as I do so many good writers—via Twitter, and after I read “The Good Tenant” in Split Lip Mag and “Celebration #50, 2010” in Tin House, I knew: This is a writer to watch.
When I learned Maxwell founded Street Lit in Austin, a writing workshop that meets every Saturday at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), I immediately e-mailed to ask if I might possibly lead one of the Saturday workshops.
On July 15th, 2017, I met a very tall Barry Maxwell at the ARCH on the corner of Neches and 7th . He shook my hand, finishing a cigarette and apologizing for the sweat from his four block walk from the bus stop.  I liked him immediately, and after spending three hours at a table with him and about fifteen other writers, he walked me back out to the corner where I waited for a cab. As I left, I encouraged him to consider UNT for his PhD once he finishes his MFA at Montana.
(Photo: Roberto Roldan)
This semester in my Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course, I have an Essayist Spotlight Unit featuring four writers: Jaquira Díaz, Barry Maxwell, William Bradley, and Meghan McClure.  For each writer, we read five of their essays so that students might consider the recurring themes, imagery, syntactical patterns, allusions, and forms to identify: what makes an essayist’s essaying unique?  In other words, what makes a Barry Maxwell essay a Barry Maxwell essay?
I included Barry in the Spotlight Unit because of the consistency of his persona (a homeless man in Austin) and his formal range. I wanted to show students how in “Testing the Limitless,” Maxwell creates a hybrid of poetry and prose, while another essay breaks paragraphs with mathematical equations, and how one offers a straightforward narrative, another a flash.  In all of the essays, the writing comes across urgent, honest, an engaged voice demanding that this self be seen. One other reason, and the most important, I think: I knew this was a point of view and a persona my students had most likely not encountered.
I scheduled Barry’s Spotlight for February 1 and asked students to submit questions to me via e-mail by 9:00 pm the night before class.  That night, I opened my e-mail to find their questions, some of them overlapping, so I culled seven and asked Barry to answer the ones he wished to before class began the next day. I was both pleased and not surprised when he answered all seven.
Last week in class, I projected Barry’s answers to the questions my students sent me onto the screen and read each one out loud (I have a blind student, and she’s teaching me so much about how to teach the essay in different ways). I read one answer after another, and after a while, the classroom transformed into what I can only describe as a concert—students eager in celebration and inspiration, raising their hands to voice how they were connecting to Barry Maxwell, to his work, and to his words.
At one point, we agreed: We can’t let this stay in the room.
It’s too good.  
***
How did you become homeless? And how did you come out of that?
The short answer is that I partied till I was homeless. That usually gets at least a nod or even a laugh of “Yeah, same here,” from someone who’s been there.
It may be more than you bargained for in asking, but looking at myself from early on, straight out of high school (from which I didn’t graduate, due to my consistent lack of showing up…), I set myself up for it. I played drums, and had that romantic image of making a healthy living at it, the whole die hard musician thing, dedicated to rock and roll, man, until you “made it.” Whatever that meant. I went from my mother’s home, to a house with band mates, then to another band that traveled so much I lived in motels and on the sax player’s couch.
It set a pattern in my expectations of the world. Rootlessness. Permissions. Irresponsibility. Over the years I had some perfectly normal times with wives and jobs and real-deal lifestyles, but somehow, I had the core belief that I’d be taken care of, that I could get away with drinking and drugging and there’d be no lasting consequences, and that I’d land on my feet no matter what, like a baby falling back into mamma’s arms. It’s nice to be optimistic and have faith in the universe, but the universe only puts up with so much bullshit.
Fast forward to a situation where I was living with a wonderful woman who loved meth and drinking as much as I did—we’re still in touch, have forgiven each other, and wonder how we didn’t freakin’ die—I worked as a solo house painter and maintenance guy who always had vodka in the tool box, and snorted meth in the bathroom while the homeowner admired my meticulous work. It was a system doomed to break down. We lost my girlfriend’s house, she developed health issues requiring spinal surgery—everything came to me to step up and provide. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how! We moved from rental to rental, and eventually things collapsed. She moved to her daughter’s place, and I rode out the eviction process until it was me and what I could fit in a Honda. I didn’t have any friends who would put up with me. No more options.
There’s a lot more to it, but it ended up with my only remaining (and annoyed with me) friend dropping me off in downtown Austin, where I connected with the homeless shelter. That’s when I made it official. Client #113119 in the database. That friend and master enabler was and is Steve, from “The Good Tenant.” I don’t think he’s read it…
The way out is wrapped up in “32 Feet (per second per second),” [published in Hothouse]. I looked at my choices, and it was either fucking die and get it over with, or end up one of those grizzled old drunks who reveled in the bum-under-the-bridge life. I gave up and went to rehab, instead. It caught, and I got a room for a year through a charity program, got a GED, a little scholarship, and started courses at Austin Community College, taking writing classes with the awesome Charlotte Gullick. I lucked and shoved my way into a sublet situation, leading to an actual lease on a “you don’t pay the rent, we throw you out” handshake. Nailed a full ride to UT, and now, rootless again (sort of) in Montana! Taken care of, if you call student loans “taken care of.” Unsure of anything beyond the next semester.
Everything hinged on stopping drinking. Other addictions were just opportunistic, but quitting alcohol was the key.
At what point in your writing journey did you decide to obtain an MFA, and what drew you to the MFA in particular?
Well, school is a cozy, if stressful, environment, so there’s that whole “Please take care of me forever” thing that I still have to acknowledge, but mainly it’s because I’m proving to myself that I can finish something. That’s in addition to the more obvious attraction of hanging with the smart kids, the (allegedly) deeper or higher levels of rigor in workshops and classes, etc.
My main aim here is simply to get as much practice writing as I can, with as much input and guidance as possible. The hope for getting better at this stuff is a never-ending thing.
I have no idea what I’m gonna do when I’m done. Jill planted the idea of a PhD in my head… I dream of taking Street Lit to nonprofit levels and spreading it around in the world. Some people look down on community college writing programs, but I like the idea of getting back to helping folks who might never have dreamed of writing. Like me, I guess.
After reading your bio on your website: How does your idea about these two versions of yourself, the versions before-and-after being homeless, affect your persona in essays? Are you constantly one or the other in a single essay, or do both versions inform your persona for each essay? I hope that question makes sense. I’m just really intrigued by your understanding of yourself as different people, in a way, and how maybe you can feel more objectively about past versions in an essay, or sympathize with yourself more.
This makes a LOT of sense. I’ll try to answer without getting too weird or esoteric, but it’s an issue I haven’t figured out for myself, and I think it may be one of the things I’m essaying about or fictioning over in almost everything I write.
The meat of it is that I went from what, to me, was a “normal” human, if not quite standard-issue, to being one of the people I had looked down on, ignored, and never imagined myself as being. The entire experience was one long “My god! What have I done?” moment, and while in it, and especially while drinking, it felt like an irrevocable state. I became IT, so to speak. My beliefs about who I was became wrong. My beliefs about the world and the people I knew and trusted were wrong. And it’s such a huge thing that no matter what I do now, there is no way to shake it off, or consider myself as just the old Barry who went through some shit, and came out of it more or less whole. I’m changed from the ground up, if only in knowing that I might be sitting here this second and be wrong about everything. It’s unsettling!
The point about looking more objectively at past “me,” and sympathizing more with myself is awesome and mind-blowing, too. There is a distance, now, from which I can look back and both see that guy as the unrepentant fuckup he was, but also see how lost a child he was, too. In writing about those times, I try to be hard on that guy, not cut him any slack by making excuses, while remembering that he (just like all of us) was making the best of it. Doing what he could with what he had, however stupidly or blindly. He loved people. People loved him. He can love himself now that he has some distance. (And what’s up with Barry suddenly writing about himself in 3rd person!?)
This is helping me in writing fiction, too. Just last night in workshop we talked about how the worst villains believe themselves the hero, and that even walk-on characters think they’re the center of the story. When writing either, get into their heads for a while, and figure out what you’d do or say if you were them, at the center of their universe.
Why do you write about being homeless? We’ve been talking in class about telling the story only we can tell.
Wow. It’s a twist-up between writing the story only I can tell, and sometimes it being the only story I can tell. Things may change, and I hope I can push myself toward that change, but it’s the biggest thing that has happened to me, and it’s a preoccupation to figure it out as much as I can. To come to terms with that whole mental earthquake I talked about and make peace with it. (I feel like all these sentences deserve a question mark.)
I’ve written and am writing about not-so-homeless stuff, and I’m getting used to it. I’m beginning to reconnect with the life prior to those events, and believe that yeah, I was a kid once. I was a stepdad, a regular person, a teenager, a rock and roll idiot, and so on. Fiction helps. Blurring the lines of genre helps.
And also, I have an agenda that I can’t deny. Though I hate clunky labels, the “person experiencing homelessness” is one that’s functional. I do have a tendency to want to beat civilians (as we bums used to call the normal people) over the head with the notion that we’re all humans walking around the same world. That we all feel pain and have the same needs. That we all have cracks in our foundations, and that under the latest coat of paint, we’ve got patches over the holes in our walls.
When you write, what do you worry about?
Oh my…
·                     Am I full of shit?
·                     Why is this no good?
·                     When will they all know I’m not really a writer?
·                     Am I telling the truth?
·                     Was that last good thing THE last good thing?
·                     Who do I think I’m kidding?
·                     Am I going to look stupid?
·                     AM I stupid?
·                     Is this thing even a thing, or am I just venting to myself?
·                     Why bother? I’ll never be as good as [fill in the blank].
·                     Semicolons, commas, parentheses, em dashes, periods, and …s.
·                     Am I gonna offend people with this? (Fuck that.)
·                     Are the smart people gonna laugh at this? At me? For thinking I have anything to say?
Other than the laundry list of insecurities, I try to worry, after drafts 1 through gazillion, about passive sentences. About rhythm. About flow from one thought to the next. About getting too writer-y and screwing up clarity for the sake of a big word or a fancy phrase. About overexplaining. About honesty, most of all, in essays. About truth, most of all, in fiction.
What writers do you admire and why?
I’m not sucking up to teacher when I say Jill is one of them. I look to her for lessons in form and freedom and sheer nerve. I see a lot of poetry in Jill’s work. It’s hard for me to pin down, but in a lot of her stuff I see such a firmly woven cloth of humanity, where there’s no hiding physicality behind psychology, nor separation of the emotional from the intellectual. The whole enchilada of personhood is there in every word. (I’m making that scrunchy-nosed “Does this make any sense at all?” face.)
I’m only recently discovering poetry. Or getting comfortable with it. (Isn’t that a strange prejudice in our culture!?) I’ve started paying attention, in part, because I’ve been doing fiction workshops with some poetry track folks, and their fiction is just insanely cool. I can’t declare anyone a fave yet, but I’ve committed myself to starting each morning with reading the Poem a Day from poets.org, and just following tweets to new poems has been a treat.
My go-to favorite author is Nick Flynn. Earlier, I mentioned Charlotte Gullick at ACC. When I first started trying to write about myself in the world, she gave me a copy of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and I felt like I’d met this guy and we’d compared notes. It gave me “permission” to write about my world and helped show me how.
When I was living at the shelter, I read constantly. It was like a drug. I read so much that I have no clue about my actual opinions of any particular book, and don’t know if I could name the ones I read! So, I can say I’m widely read, but only since school have I been hitting any reading with intent, or with an eye for learning from it. For instance, I read Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood during the Xmas break. Holy freaking Moley I loved it. All this time, I had no idea.
I’ve had to read more canonical stuff that I might have missed otherwise. I’ve fallen in love with Virginia Woolf, via To the Lighthouse, and can sit and live in her sentences, reading those long, mind-jumping passages over and over.
Another who has become a Holy of Holies even more than Nick Flynn is Denis Johnson. Jesus’ Son is within arm’s reach at all times. I get stuck while writing, read a random paragraph, and can move again. His poetry is frighteningly gut wrenching, too.
I workshopped a short story last night, and Johnson’s name came up. “There’s a Denis Johnson moment on page 5…” and other such comments. At first I worried I was too influenced, and had been derivative. Then I figured that at this stage of my game, derivative is fine. I’m learning from him.
I have to include Annie Dillard, Andres Dubus (the elder), Frederick Busch, George Saunders, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joan Didion—jeez, there are so many, and for so many reasons…
Along with the Poem-a-Day thing, I’ve been hitting a lot of flash fiction and nonfiction online. When I read something I like, I hop on Twitter and follow that author. So many marvelous things have landed in front of me from tweeted recommendations. (And so many new places to submit!)
We’re undergraduates, and you were at UT as a 50-something. What do you wish we knew about fellow students like you?
I had (and still have) a lot of weird presumptions that are most often mistaken. I walk in a room for the first time with a bunch of young strangers, and immediately believe them all to be calm, confident, self-possessed, and at ease. While I, on the other hand, am a nervous wreck, feeling waaaay out of place, and an imposter, at best. I’ve learned to bluff quite well and put a smile on the face of things, pretend I’m cool… Once I’ve made friends, though, it turns out they thought the same of me, and they were going nuts, too. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing any more than anybody else!
The funniest moments have been when I’ve been mistaken for a professor, or when it’s assumed I’m like, retired or something, and going to school for kicks, or that I’ve “come back to finish my degree.” Nope! People don’t know that I’m restarting a whole life from scratch.
The worst moments are when I’m dismissed as irrelevant. There is sometimes an arrogance to youth, I think, and ageism is real. (I know when I was a young punk, old folks were just a pain in my ass, writing paper checks in the express line at HEB.) I’ve got the feeling you could claim the same in reverse, just as validly.
I am also very cautious of being perceived as some sort of old creep on the predatory prowl—and I can totally understand that I look out of place among the campus crowd. I’ve had to present my student ID to prove I belonged in buildings at UT. A good thing, honestly. You never know. But that evil dude isn’t me.
Some of my most valued friends now are 30 years younger than me, and we’re all bumbling through as best we can. Years don’t mean wisdom, just wrinkles. In writing courses, I make the joke that I’m older than everyone by calendar years, but am a very young writer. Many of my classmates have been writing longer than me. And once folks get used to seeing the old fart in the room, I think they also realize that I respect them, and enjoy their company. It builds all of us up in both directions.
A quick PS: Everything you’ve read of mine was either written entirely, or was begun, while I was in community college or an undergrad at UT. Undergrads rock, y’all. Own it.
This from me, Jill: What’s next for Street Lit, and how might we start a Street Lit in Denton?
Whoa! How cool!
The Austin gang is still meeting, with a couple of guys running it who work at the ARCH and are fine writers and human beings. I trust them, and the attendee writers I’m still in touch with are happy with them, too. I think it’s good—to be honest, I was getting kinda fried… New blood=new life for the group = new words in new ways.
I’ve gone to the shelter here and met with the volunteer coordinator. Book donations are, of course, welcome, and I’m spreading the word among students and faculty. The woman also gave me a tentative green light on doing a workshop, but for some reason has not responded to calls or emails about hashing out pragmatics. I’m going to have to go grab her in person again to get it rolling.
What’s the homeless and poor folk situation like in Denton? I’ll hop on Google and see what’s up. And if there’s any advice I’d give myself-in-the-past regarding doing something like this, it’s “Show the fuck UP.” No matter what, no matter if nobody comes. No matter if everyone’s afraid to write. Show up, be there, and people will gravitate to you. The pens’ll get put to use, and words will come. Awesomeness will step into the room and take over.
*
Barry Maxwell is a 57-year-old native of Austin, Texas, newly transplanted to Missoula, Montana, for the UM MFA program. He is the proud founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s and now Missoula’s homeless communities, and is a fist-waving supporter of the arts in unexpected places, from unexpected sources.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).  She teaches essaying at the University of North Texas.

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Poem of the Day: The President Flies Over

Aloft between heaven and them,
 
I babble the landscape—what staunch, vicious trees,
what cluttered roads, slow cars. This is my
 
country as it was gifted me—victimless, vast.
The soundtrack buzzing the air around my ears
continually loops ditties of eagles and oil.
I can’t choose. Every moment I’m awake,
aroused instrumentals channel theme songs,
speaking
what I cannot.
 
I don’t ever have to come down.
I can stay hooked to heaven,
dictating this blandness.
My flyboys memorize flip and soar.
They’ll never swoop real enough
to resurrect that other country,
 
won’t ever get close enough to give name
to tonight’s dreams darkening the water.
 
I understand that somewhere it has rained.
Patricia Smith, “The President Flies Over” from Blood Dazzler. Copyright © 2008 by Patricia Smith. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press. http://ift.tt/1hsifaa

Source: Blood Dazzler(Coffee House Press, 2008)

Patricia Smith

Biography
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Source: http://ift.tt/xd0win