Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Spirit of Healthy Dissent

Michael in front of the House of Burgesses,
Williamsburg, VA, mid-September 2011.
A few weeks ago, when Michael and I were in Williamsburg, I picked up a few pamphlets, one of which was printed on the Foundation's colonial-era, moveable-type printing presses. One of the hand-stitched booklets I purchased was Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Another was Poor Richard's Pamphlet No. 11: An Anonymous Account of the Boston Massacre. And finally, I also bought the slender, Williamsburg-printed Summary View of the Rights of British America Set Forth in Some Resolutions Intended for the Inspection of the Present Delegates of the People of Virginia Now in Convention, written by a "native member of the House of Burgesses". What's the House of Burgesses, you ask? It was Williamsburg's (and by extension, Virginia's, governing body, where elected officials presided for a greater part of each year). It is bicameral, with two parliamentary chambers, one dealing with British colonial concerns and the other with Virginia's localized conerns). I include a picture of Michael, standing in front of one side of the House of Burgesses. The circular window indicates that it was a governmental building.

Revolutionary pamphlets with hand-sewn quires, no bindings
I find a great deal of inspiration in these old printing processes and incendiary pamphlets, compositions that fuelled the Revolution. It's also compelling evidence that language is truly an agent of change. Yet now, things have altered so radically within the last fifteen years, that it seems print is completely obsolete. How do you distribute revolutinary material now? Of course, via the internet. Not only do you have a greater broadcasting capacity, but the cost is minimal. And yet, yet...there are so many people distributing "revolutionary" (the air quotes appear around revolutionary on purpose) material that it's difficult to be heard at all. The sheer number of voices undercuts almost every message but those voiced by the loudest or most popular figures. Of course, the internet promotes democratic expression of ideas, and this is wonderful. At the same time, however, voices that have genuinely compelling and thoughtful messages are often lost in a cacophony of pseudo-intellectual noise and other totally opinionated garbage.

Inside the printer's shop, Williamsburg, VA
mid-September 2011.
A few years ago, for ZMagazine, I wrote a review of Signs of Change, an exhibition charting the modern history of international revolutionary paraphenalia. You can read the review here. I started the essay with a quote by George Grosz, a quote that I pulled from his 1925 essay "Art is in Danger". Grosz wrote, "...come out of your seclusion, let the ideas of the working people take hold of you and help them fight this rotten society." Here, Grosz was telling the intellectuals to come down from their ivory towers and get involved in a progressive movement to effect positive social change. He wrote this shortly after the rampant inflation that crippled much of Germany. Perhaps more significant is that he wrote it after he had been to Russia, saw the impact of Communism on the people, and had begun to stray from its ideology. 

I still find Grosz's quote to be significant, particularly as a writer. Do I believe in art for art's sake? Without question. But I feel that at least some artists and writers have a responsibility to engage in a kind of political warning system...that is, extrapolate from the data we have--in this case, particular elements of the status quo--and determine where these current variables might lead us should they persist. For example, (these are, of course, very specific and narrow variables) if students continue not to care about their studies, if they continue to collect their Pell grants and government funds without investing the time necessary to earning degrees, if they are never taught (or never absorb and understand) the fundaments of our political system, if they continue to cling to restrictive labels that facilitate their movement through the education system without truly working for what they receive, what will happen to us as a nation? How easily can we be conquered by savvy (even not so savvy) manipulators, who tell us what we want to hear? Is this what the men writing revolutionary pamphlets--including The Declaration of Independence--had in mind? Did they expect that we would be come a nation of slackers, surly and opinionated but unable to produce any factual details to substantiate them, even though they are often expressed with both middle fingers raised?  

Moveable type printing press, Williamsburg, VA
mid-September 2011.
 It's this realization that makes me want to write. I imagine where these variables, if unchanged, will lead us. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is why I wrote "Conceived in the New Liberty", where people actually burn copies of The Constitution because they are manipulated into believing it no longer works for the nation (and because burning the facscimiles gets the attention of television crews, who offer a kind of fleeting celebrity). This becomes the point at which the country descends into martial law. I myself see this descent coming, and in some ways, it's already here. Other writers have seen this potential, too. Take Vonnegut's Player Piano for example, or better yet, Orwell's Animal Farm. I wonder, are students even required to read this book anymore? And if they are, would they understand its implications or would they simply accept it at face value, as a story about talking animals in a farm yard? I truly wonder about this, given my own experiences in the classroom.

In the spirit of revolutionary pamphlets and dispersing views that counter popular notions, I've just purchased some ad space for Literary Outlaw on both Scholars and Rogues and Liberty News Forum. I've done this before, specifically for American Soma, which helped me sell two copies (one of which went to England) and landed me an interview with Jeff Farias on his radio show. At the time, I advertised on Truthdig, but their rates have gone up exponentially. What had, in 2009, cost $50, now costs $400. So I opted for something more economically viable for my piggy bank. We'll see if these two blogs accept the ad, first of all (for ads must be approved before running), and what traffic it might generate. We shall see....

Friday, September 23, 2011

Launching Literary Outlaw

So, I've launched something I've been talking about for quite awhile: Literary Outlaw. It will become the place that I publish my fiction, particularly my political and speculative fiction. The so-called 'Featured Story', titled "Conceived in the New Liberty" appears there. I've sent it out to one publication, but I have little hope that it will be published. I say this not because I don't have confidence in the story, but because it's not something that literary journals would readily publish. I explain this statement a little more below. But first, some philosophizing, brought to you by: My Mid-life Crisis, available in regular or economy size. I know. It's a little early for that, isn't it? Indeed. But 40 is just three years away, so I'm rehearsing. Plus, I had one when I turned 30, too, so let's call it a relapse.

Lately, I've been asking myself: what is it that I want to accomplish in life? Well, I'd like to be a writer. Check! Cool. Got that one down. I'll recap...I published my first book, The Famous & The Anonymous, in 2004 when I was nearing 30. The designer and publisher was the wonderful Steven Coy of Better Non Sequitur. Through Steven, I made the online acquaintance of James Stegall, who ran So New Publishing. After he published my work in two short, DIY-style anthologies, he then went on to publish a theme-based anthology that I edited, titled Consumed: Women on Excess. Three years later, in 2009, he published American Soma, although its distribution and publicity didn't go as I'd hoped. (The design, by David Barringer, is awesome, and I'm really grateful to him for his astute marriage of visuals and concept). The rest of my experience with American Soma was less than stellar. I leave it at that for professional reasons. I'm very grateful to author Jen Michalski, Iconoclast Magazine, and horror writer D.L. Russell for their reviews of the book. That helped take the sting out of some of the things that happened with So New. American Soma was the last book James published under the So New imprint. He now is distilling whiskey, I believe. There's more to that story, of course, but it's all water under the bridge. And water moves on. Not even rocks can keep it back. Indeed, rocks, over time, are worn away by moving water. So, let's move on.

American Soma was a mixture of different genres, all of them related to either the actual or metaphorical drugs people take (or are given) to mediate (or influence) their experiences in the world. And I'm very interested in this: in human psychology and the things people cling to in order to mitigate pain or navigate through the harrowing landscape that is life. I'm also interested in politics. As a college instructor, I see how little information students leave high school with, whether through conscious refusal to pay attention to anything that doesn't involve music, consumption, or good times, or through poor high school curricula. I suspect it's a bit of both. But many kids can't even tell me how many amendments there are to The Constitution, or what any amendment is after the second one. They really have no idea. So, I wondered: how easy would it be to convince them that something better is needed, that The Constitution itself is obsolete, that we could come up with something better? Pretty damn easy, I would wager. And therein lies the danger that I see, and that's what I've written about in "Conceived in the New Liberty". This is not something that is going to find easy publication. I'll be the first to ackowledge that.

Back in my elementary school days, I was a handful. I talked back to the teachers, and only through my Mother's intervention did I avoid getting corporal punishment. Oh, they wanted to paddle my behind pretty badly because I was not a docile subject. I was not a bad kid, mind you. I just didn't like people telling me what to do and when to do it. So, I stood in the corner a lot. I often spent recess indoors, so I could think about the ramifications of my inappropriate behavior. This causes me to chuckle now. Anyway, I've taken some of this childhood 'FU' and decided that I would start cranking out my work in a venue I felt comfortable in. Of course, I know that self-publishing, which is in essence what I'm doing, is denigrated. I will not be easily reviewed, but I return to my other experiences in publishing and ask myself, "When has it ever been easy?" The answer to that is "Never." But at least it's out there. Like water, I will keep moving, hewing a path through the obdurate field that hasn't truly welcomed what I offer. Here, folks, is Literary Outlaw.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Home again, home again...

...with more to come on where I've been and what we've been doing this past week. In the meantime, some pictures. Just a teeny, tiny sampling until I can tell you more. I've got a 10 o'clock class an hour down the Ohio River.

Michael at Chownings Tavern, Williamsburg, VA

A rainbow (actually, it had been a double rainbow) seen
on Route 15 coming from Maryland to Pennsylvania.

Michael waiting inside a colonial store.

Me, in a tree, Williamsburg, VA