“There is a long-standing tradition in America of scoffing at poets, especially if they show any interest in politics.” Eugene McCarthy
He wasn’t perfect, Eugene, for sure, against campaign finance reform, against affirmative action, against positive immigration reform, but compared to today’s so-called progressive politician? Hands down, a league of his own:
McCarthy, indeed, is not easily classified. In spite of bitter breaks with the Democratic Party and some of his old friends, toward the end of his life, McCarthy visited Minnesota and was received affectionately by officials there, including then-Sen. Paul Wellstone. It seems likely that in spite of his feuds and ideological drift, he will be remembered mostly for the way he went out on a political limb in 1968 and galvanized so many young activists who continued in lives of activism and public service – including Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.
Albert Eisele, currently editor and columnist at The Hill newspaper, covered McCarthy as a journalist for Minnesota newspapers. In 1972 he authored a dual biography of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey; when McCarthy died he wrote a remembrance in which he reaffirmed words he had written more than three decades earlier:
Eugene McCarthy showed that it is possible for one man to make a difference in a democratic society, and that not even the immense power of the presidency can withstand the opposition from a public aroused by a man who speaks out against what he sees as an immoral action by government. Whether he is destined to be remembered as the midwife of a new day in American politics, or merely as a brilliant gadfly of the old, it is clear that American politics in the future will reflect the dedication to reforming political processes and limiting executive power that is the common denominator of Eugene McCarthy’s public career.
Eisele also recalls celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, who once worked as a press aide in McCarthy’s office, saying, “McCarthy stood up alone in 1968 to protest what he saw as an immoral war. He galvanized young people throughout the country. They gave up their jobs and set aside their educations to work for his campaign. You saw them [at a Washington memorial service for McCarthy], grey and wrinkled but still proud of having once been a part of something decent and honorable.”
The beauty of the word, poetry, literature, to spark change, and weave, the voices of desperation and revolt, those of lamentations and political will, it never ceases to put me in awe of the writers out there struggling away to find some audience or platform from which to launch that ancient wisdom of doggerel dredging us into a corner of political and emotional prostration.
Thanks to poet Charles Orloski for passing on Robert Lowell’s introduction to Eugene McCarthy’s book of poetry, Other Things and the Aardvark (1968)
Can you please consider passing-on the attached “Introduction” to Eugene McCarthy’s book of poetry, written by Robert Lowell, to Mr. Paul Haeder? I am following and learning from Paul’s DV articles, in particular the one focused upon contemporary poetry, and published a week or so ago.
Sometimes its good to dip one’s feet into the hot-water of 1968 and read about a late-Senator(poet) who probably would strongly object to drone-attacks on Islamic villages and other greedy abominations of the State.
I shall cease bombardment of your “INBOX,” thank you, and best regards! Refer to attachment?
That half-hour documentary on McCarthy —
Eugene McCarthy: I’m Sorry I Was Right
- The press called him Clean Gene when he ran against the war in Vietnam.
- The Needle was his nickname on Capitol Hill, in honor of his wicked wit.
- The poet Robert Lowell declared him, “A One-man Greek Chorus.”
- A friend says, “He is Renaissance Man Super-squared.”
He is the politician and poet, Eugene McCarthy, and he’s the subject of a new documentary, “I’m Sorry I was Right”. A half-hour portrait created for public television, we follow the career of the former Senator from Minnesota and note his accomplishments with rare archival footage and scenes shot on location from his birthplace in Watkins, Minnesota to his current home in Woodville, Virginia.
Directed and written by Mike Hazard, the show features music by Butch Thompson, Dean Magraw, Xeng Sue Yang, Pete Seeger, Eubie Blake and Bob Dylan; camera work by Ken Smith, Jim Mulligan, Rick Souther and Mickey Chance; sound work by Jeff Sylvestre and Tim Gaffney; editing byKathleen Laughlin; design by Les Skoropat; web site by electricjet.com; and narration by Robert Bly.
He also, however, repeatedly sounded the alarm about the growth of corporate power. He was a fan of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the military-industrial complex, which McCarthy entered into the Congressional Record. Twenty-five years ago, he wrote, “The power of corporations must be curbed and directed, for that power now threatens the public good in business, finance, and in broader areas of culture. The corporation is not a person with full moral and social responsibilities. It is a legal construct….”
Do poets count when it comes to Obama, Murdoch, Walton, Cheney, Koch, Kissinger, NPR, Fox News, US of A?
An Interview with Robert Bly Part 5.
Interviewer: You wrote your first poem against the Vietnam War in 1964. It seems strange that these poems come so soon after the Snowy Fields poems in 1962.
Robert Bly: It felt that way to me too. Suddenly everything changed. It was a hard time. No one knew what to do. Some of the older poets–Berryman was one–thought it was bad taste for a poet to participate in a public meeting. (I didn’t think so.) At the start none of us had written any protest poems ourselves, so we recited E. E. Cummings, Adolf Hitler, William Stafford, I. F. Stone, Robinson Jeffers, etc. The Swedish poet Goran Sonnevi wrote the first good poem about the War, and we read that poem in English. After a few months, a number of poets of all stripes joined an umbrella organization David Ray and I set up called American Writers Against the Vietnam War. The first read-in we did was at Reed College–I think Ferlinghetti was there. Louis Simpson helped a lot. The veterans of World War II like Louis, whose company was wiped out at Bastogne, were effective when right-wingers shouted at us from the balcony, “You’re all cowards!” “Go back to Russia!”
Galway Kinnell and I sometimes joined to do a series of readings. Once in upstate New York we gave three readings in one day, flying from Albany to Syracuse to Buffalo. That night we ended up at a diner. Suddenly a drunk in the diner, not knowing anything about us at all, said, “You want to know what I did during the Korean War?” “Well, what did you do?” “I was a rear gunner. We were coming back from a bombing raid, and the pilot for some reason flew right down the main street of this little Korean town. I had some ammunition left. You know what I did? I lowered my guns and shot every Korean I could see walking on either side of the street. What do you think about that? Why did I do that?”
That’s what that time was like. Old stuff came up.
Most of the English teachers in the universities hated our doing “political poems,” as they were called. That still happens. When I’m at a reception at a university these days, an English professor may come up to me and ask: “How do you feel now about those poems you wrote during the War?” They want me to disown the poems. I say, “I’m sorry I didn’t write more of them.”
I love you so . . . Gone? Who will swear
you wouldn’t have done good to the
country, that fulfillment wouldn’t have
done good to you — the father, as Freud
says: you? We’ve so little faith that anyone
ever makes anything better –the same and the
less–or that ambition ever makes the
ambitious: the state lifts us, we cannot
change the state — all was yours, though,
lining down the balls for hours, freedom in
the hollow bowling-alley: crack of the
glove, the boys . . . Picking a quarrel with
you is like picking the petals of the
daisies — the game, the passing crowds, the
rapid young still brand your hand with
sunflecks . . . coldly willing to smash the
ball past those who bought the park.
—Robert Lowell July 6, 1968
Note — This is my most recent piece in my paying writing gig — starts on page 40.
Nooks, and Beer & Whiskey – Writing the Inland Northwest Way
While 2,600 public library branches across the land cut back their hours, places like Spokane still read!
“The book, as we know it, is dead . . . or is dying . . . or on its last leg.” Or at least, that’s what’s been slithering around the Internet and in our popular culture for decades. Even a New York Times article in 1992 announced the last nail in the coffin for books was the digital age – first it was hypertext, now e-books.
Even the great Socrates, who wrote no books, lamented to Plato how books would be the death of culture, civilization.
Many Spokane writers beg to differ about whether reading books is passé.
“Didn’t movies do the same thing? And TV? And radio?” asks Jess Walter when I pose the question about whether reading books will go the way of the Edsel. “The culture is changing; it is an organic, dynamic thing. I don’t teach very often, but when I do, I never fail to find great eager minds in search of inspiration. . . . I don’t understand this obsession with apocalyptic thinking, especially about literature. What’s the point? It was never for everyone. It has always lived most feverishly on the fringes of the culture. It continues to thrive there today.”
One man, one gig at the Spokesman Review starting at age 19, newly married with child. Years working the various news beats, including the cop shop. Then, Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family, the book in 1995. Then, the scribe parlays the book into TV mini-series.
That’s Spokane-nurtured Jess Walter, whose books Citizen Vince and Zero have pulled in rave reviews and awards nationally. He lives and writes in town, and you run into him at various River City pubs, pastry haunts, and people joints.
Culture in Spokane? Get lit-up with literature!
“I suppose there’s some responsibility, too; if you’ve ever complained about culture or the lack of things to do in Spokane, you’re sort of contractually obligated to support Get Lit, the Spokane Film Festival, the Spokane Symphony,” Walter says.
We actually just had the ruby anniversary of Get Lit! – fifteen years of literary festivals that have brought big and not-so-big names to town for a confab of novelists, poets, memoir writing workshop impresarios, youth slam poetry contestants, and an entire cadre of amateur and student writers and down home readers.
That was April 9 through April 14. Lots of sponsors, lots of venues, a lot of people walking the streets all day and night with book bags. Huddling around bards and non-fiction writers at the Bing, Kress Gallery, Woman’s Club, SCC, SFCC, EWU, the Davenport, Red Lion Hotel, Rocket Bakery, Mobius and Barrister Winery.
“And it starts to feel like you can’t swing a dead cat in Spokane without hitting a writer. And there’s a wide spectrum, poets and story writers, novelists and YA writers, literary, commercial, just a hell of a lot of good writers,” says Sam Ligon, novelist, EWU writing teacher, editor of Willow Springs literary journal.
There is a writing community in these here alleyways, around those scabland towns, and sprinkled through the Inland Northwest’s scrub forest haunts – as the Baltimore native Ligon attests. Ligon’s author of Drift and Swerve, a 2009 collection of stories, and Safe in Heaven Dead, a 2003 novel.
Ligon rattles off some local literary luminaries: “Shawn Vestal, Shann Ray, Maya Zeller, Laura Read, to name a few. Then you have all the writers affiliated with the colleges and universities in town, my colleagues at EWU – Chris Howell, Greg Spatz, Jonathan Johnson, Jonathan Potter, Polly Buckingham, Rachel Toor, Paul Lindholdt, and Natalie Kusz, but also writers like Tod Marshall, Dan Butterworth, and Beth Cooley at Gonzaga, Laurie Lamon at Whitworth, and all the writers down the road in Moscow – Robert Wrigley, Kim Barnes, Alexandra Teague, Daniel Orozco. You also have writers currently unaffiliated with any university, people like Jess Walter, John Keeble, Nance Van Winckel, Sherry Jones, Mark Anderson, Dennis Held, Sharma Shields, Frank Zafiro, Patrick McManus, and Chris Crutcher.”
You end up at Auntie’s Bookstore and you see people not just eating up books, but attending readings — the listen-ask-meet-and-greet happening for every sort of writer imaginable coming through town, including those Spokane and the Inland Northwest claim as their very own.
The writer’s haymaker is, of course, the Get Lit! Festival, which just a month ago hosted more than 92 writers, big and small, doing their creative things while dancing to the beat of very different muses.
“Get Lit! is important for both readers and writers, because it’s about celebrating in a communal way something that, as individuals, we do alone. Writing is a solitary act. Reading is often a solitary act. Of course there are still communal aspects—parents read to children, people discuss the books they’re reading with friends, and debate the questions and topics those books address. But having a festival to celebrate those solitary hours of reading or writing that we treasure so much is essential,” says Melissa Huggins, Get Lit! director.
Finding Voice in the Small Town that Could
Again, another writer pushing books: Huggins is from Spokane and ended up on the West side of the state for college and then back here at EWU for a master’s in fine arts — writing. She’s been running Get Lit! for two years, but has been around the scene for a few more years.
The K-12 schools have writers haunting the hallways and libraries, for up to 24 weeks, or one-day word magic appearances, again, thanks to Get Lit’s organizational prowess and the good graces of local poets and fiction writers.
Even the Monroe Bridge that spans the lower falls has that spiral Sherman Alexi poem from “brother coyote” written on metal salmon casts set in the walkway – a tribute to indigenous people’s whose very souls and cultural linkages are tied to the anadromous fish.
While Salmonids divide their lives between incubation and insemination in freshwater and ocean-going bluster and growth, many writers too have to split lives between places . . . or occupations.
Another reporter from the Spokesman, Shawn Vestal, intones the value of literature: “Get Lit is my favorite Spokane event – it’s Bloomsday for the soft, spectacled rest of us, Hoopfest for word nerds, Christmas for those of us engaged in the devotional practice of writing and reading.”
Vestal is now one of the literary voices who read from his debut short story collection, Godforsaken Idaho, at the ruby edition of Spokane’s premiere literary arts festival.
“We will build Spokane bigger and better.”
“The story,” or stories, are where it’s at when it comes to Spokane and the Pacific Inland Empire. For Shawn Vestal, it’s Idaho and his old faith that ties him to emotional and psychological landscapes that many in this neck of the woods can relate to.
“Mormonism is simply the material I have available – I grew up in an LDS family, and it’s my heritage. Though I’ve left the church, I find that it’s the source and structure and framework through which I look at many universal human questions surrounding faith and belief and, in particular, the loss of faith and belief. [. . .] it’s my background and foundation as well, and I’m inclined, when writing fiction, to go to the places of greatest discomfort, to poke at the uncomfortable, to go freely to irreverent or sacrilegious places.”
Spokane is rich in stories, from the days when natives were displaced and their horses killed and braves hanged, to the Depression. Tim Egan revitalized that bit of Spokane history in his book, Breaking Blue.
We’re talking the stuff of TV crime series. It was 1935, and the Spokane cops were extortion kings strong-arming sex, food, and money from hobos, many of whom were farmers who had fled the Dust Bowl. Spokane’s “blue” rolled people, robbed dairies, and ran a criminal enterprise that included murder. Egan’s book is about breaking that silence, with ex-Spokane cop Tony Bamonte figuring in the exposé. Town Marshall George Conff had been offed by the cops.
We’re the town that burned down in 1899, and those ashes are the stuff of literary Phoenixes.
August 4, 1899: the fire started downtown. Several speculations, including Bill Wolfe cooking pork chops in his lunch joint on Railroad Avenue. Then, poof, the greasy cloth sets the town ablaze. Or, maybe it was Irish Kate, a saloon “girl” working on Railroad Avenue. You know, the oldest profession in the world kind of literary deal, with some drunk coming into the bar picking a fight with her.
The narrative goes like this: Kate needed to fix her hair after the tussle, so she stuck a curling iron on a kerosene lamp. The “john” returned, they fought, she hit the table, and the lamp exploded, starting the Great Spokane Fire of 1899.
Is Spokane a great setting for fiction and perfect fodder for writers to hone their craft, or what?
“I think Spokane is both,” Jess Walter says, and his book, Citizen Vince is set right here in the 1970s. It’s a setting-plot-narrative around an east coast criminal- turned-snitch who ends up “relocated” in Lilac City through the auspices of feds in a witness protection program.
“ It’s a very real place, very authentic. Brooklyn feels to me a bit like a Disneyfied version of old Brooklyn. Portland, too. Spokane still feels pretty Spokane. I can still go to a diner and not have it aware of its implicit diner-ness. That’s rarer now than we imagine. And for a writer, trying to do something authentic on the page, it’s a great asset,” Walter emphasizes.
Portlandia: Spokane Guy Going Back to High School
It was four hours till the start of Spring Break, and over 60 students were sitting pretty calmly in the Franklin High School library waiting to listen to Spokanite Tim Egan talk about journalism, the life of a writer and what it takes to have Ken Burns put him in front of a camera for his documentary, The Dust Bowl, talking about the stories Egan collected while researching the book, The Worst Hard Time.
While Egan ends up in places like Italy or traveling for months all over this country, Egan’s roots are entangled in a poor Spokane family with seven other siblings. He was small – short – and needed some skills to survive the tumultuous juvenile stage in Spokane.
He resorted to the power of words. “I got into writing because it was one of the few things I thought I could do to change the world.”
Journalism, he told the hip Portland high schoolers, got him access to power. “Here I was this white kid asked to do this story on crack cocaine in New York City. Jumping into people’s lives is the best way to describe my work.”
He relayed to the students that now his New York Times columns get over 20 million hits in a day, something that not only impressed them, but lubricates Egan since he loves politics, arguments, and words.
For his NYT columns, Egan admits his role is provocateur, whereas in his books he launches into deep and extended mining of lives, contexts, and narrative landscapes.
“A book fails if it’s not alive,” he said, pointing out that for two years he traveled the USA listening to stories from Dust Bowl survivors. “The sky turned black. Kids died of dust pneumonia. The stories they told me about the Dust Bowl times made them whole . . .they made me whole.”
It’s Not Genre . . . It’s Fiction
The Queen of Science Fiction, Pacific Northwest’s Ursula K. Le Guin, ended up with Egan and Portland writers and a Yale literary hero, Anne Fadiman, at the 89th conference of Sigma Tau Delta, the international college English honor society last month.
She came out with both literary fists swinging, making sure no uppity attitude was copped by the erudite, pedantic undergraduate and graduate students attending the conference.
“Many English departments have lots of false categorical judgments on genre fiction,” she says. “Genre is not a guilty pleasure. Genres exist and need to be understood as literature.”
The result is that many English departments state prejudices about, say, science fiction or young adult fiction without knowing the genres themselves. For Le Guin, it’s a “failure of teaching what people actually read.”
What we have is the book itself, whether in cloth bound form, or in the Kindle.
“The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries,” Le Guin stated in a piece she wrote for Harper’s. “It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book. This is crucial, the fact that a book is a thing, physically there, durable, indefinitely reusable, an object of value.”
It seems fitting to end my Spokane’s Literary Legacy story with a quote from one of the headliners at Get Lit 2013. Joyce Carol Oates, with 50 novels under her belt, is prolific, like Ursula K. Le Guin. Both are all over the place with short story collections, memoirs, and poetry; from YA (young adult) to Gothic.
Oates read at the Bing Crosby with high school and college students getting in free of charge.
The idea that literature should be mind candy, or easy on the heart and sensibilities, is not a value shared by Spokane writers Egan, Walter, Vestal and Ligon. It’s especially true for 83-year-old Ursula K. Le Guin who has written challenging works since way back in the ‘60s – The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci- fi novel with characters on the planet Gethen who are sequentially hermaphroditic humans.
The 74-year-old Oates, whose new book, The Accursed, is 600 pages of Gothic fiction set in the US around 1905 and explores racism, sexism and ghosts in the New Jersey college town Princeton. It too is beyond simple categorizing.
“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”
Or, as every literary scholar and aficionado one day realizes, as typed out by Walter in the voice of Vince Camden in Citizen Vince, “One day you know more dead people than live ones.”