Language and War: The Art of Entrapment

Spokane as both incubator and small town suffocation – 14 years writing about us

A little inculcation of my friend John Steppling’s blog, over here, now, read, please:

The House of Tards

The very idea of language, of putting that raging and pulsating syntax and grammar to work, with precision and poetry, well, this is a time of fifty book wonders, folks who write nothing, really, pick your topic, and those I am feeling the old stomach turning on the most are tied to climate change, faux social justice, renewable energy, all the lies about a new green economy, a la the corporate model.

Language is a tool for “how to” and personal enrichment and abs of steel and buns of titanium crap projects, this endless drivel of words from people who think they have concocted a new way of discourse or rhetoric or something. Just think of all those Ivy league wimps in and out of office, butt smacked on that revolving door, all those white thin lipped humans, in every administration, every senate page, intern, every associate in a law firm, all those lobbyists, all those PR spinners and military-poison-pharma-education-energy-ag-marketing pigs, writing-writing-writing, and many getting these worthless things published, books, or what have you. Lecture circuits, and the endless exceptionalist and chosen people’s discourse that is in a vacuum, a constant Zionist and Jewish and Protestant vacuum, the nothingness of the tribe out there putting pain and hurt and debt and cancers and incarceration and ignorance on the un-chosen majority.

Oh, hell, read John Steppling, and then another creative non-fiction piece, a reflection, of my own writing in one small town, Spokane, microcosm, and, well, we are all Plainsville, USA:

One of the byproducts of technology has been the loss of verbal descriptions. Images replace them, but more and more often it’s with shallow generalized images. The individual no longer has to describe, to employ language. One can technologically reproduce or characterize via scientific (or usually a sort of ersatz science) means, by computer graphs or algorithms. Nature is distanced. Nature is, in a sense, reified. It is made user friendly by a reductive model put in place, or it is simply disappeared. The language of commerce has replaced poetics of description. The only remaining description is one intentionally pared down to emotionless dry technical classificatory measurements. Poetics is no longer associated with precision. To know a word such as shreep is, to say the least, unusual. But those words one doesn’t know, are often looked up, but just as often they are not. I never looked up every word I wasn’t sure about. Still, those sounds, the context, is planted in the brain somewhere. Its like the first time one reads say, Hegel or Kant, or Husserl or whoever. I started Hegel when I was seventeen and thought ‘what the fuck’? I persisted for a while but gave up because I figured after 100 pages that I couldn’t remember any of what I had read. Then, a year or so later it popped into my head. Reading something else. And I realized, ah, it did have meaning. In some remote tangential way, it marinated there in my brain and now auto accessed. This is how I believe learning works. One has to become as immersed as possible in subjects, and also in reading. But very few people read after college anymore. The age of books is over, sadly. I had the wisdom to never attend school after high school.

A Poet’s Lessons inside a “Walled City”

Retrospective – New Eyes

Imagine, a town like Spokane, with that cataract of the river sculpting cut-banks, the towering basalt monoliths casting Doctor Seuss shadows, the vast undulating loess drifts of wheat like a golden Chinese plateau, the snaggy bull pines pushing green refractions into the wide open sky, and an endless menagerie of moose, deer, marmots and corvids as our own dramatic characters as part of a “walled city.” We’ll get to the Spokane poet and her truth about this place in a minute.

My own “truth in the words” is coupled with a sense of wanting a community’s stories titrated through the enormity of all those narratives we design for ourselves as individuals, groups, neighborhoods and nations.

In other words, this place, Spokane, is the thing of stories, and the tabla rasa of our hopes and dreams, and dreams dashed. No matter how many stories get cranked out for this column – Metro Talk – the weight of my responsibility to the people whose lives I course through rather abruptly is no small matter.

Journalist for a daily in Bisbee, Arizona, or writer for the LA Times Syndicate, I cared little about how big or small the audience was when I was writing because my aim was to touch one reader at a time by conveying timeless ideas with a sense of passion and honesty: with “new eyes.”

For those of you who allow me to come into your lives here in Spokane and Couer d’Alene with a few thousand words every month in a magazine column that is designed to capture the ebb and flow of life in this hinterland – the Pacific Inland Northwest – I owe readers my captured imagination as I relay dynamic people and their motion in the city I seek out in order to feed my compulsion to tell stories.

That telling is not always prettified or glorified, and never marketing malarkey. I subscribe to the George Orwell school of thought: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

All Eyes on the struggle!

Being a writer, a journalist, a poet, or something in between, whether it’s novels or creative non-fiction essays, I’ve always found literary creations steeped in the challenging belief that honesty is the rudder for great writing, even if at times truth hides behind the patina of posturing and one’s own sense of gate-keeping or filtering.

In the end, though, taking the pulse of and putting on the psychiatrist’s couch the actual place – Spokane – or getting under the surface of a larger geographic location called the Pacific Inland Northwest, that’s all we can ask for in the process of developing a place’s negative and fixing what we see as a snapshot of the town’s character and of the people we call “characters” in that landscape.

It’s not easy tackling words and being true to the ethos of a community journalist with a global view towards all things big and small. Acting locally but thinking globally is a chant of the social justice and environmental and economic justice aficionado, to be sure. This column – Metro Talk – has been a staging ground and leaping off point for one journalist to put that small town reporting set of operating instructions to the test.

It may sound and feel local, but ideas are universal, and this column attempts to capture that.
This magazine journey has taken me into communities/sub-communities and narrative scapes beyond what many writers might imagine possible.

Here, just a snippet of past articles –

  • camas digging and the Nez Perce Heart of the Monster stories
  • dam breaching on the Snake River
  • what is an urban forest’s worth to a community like Spokane
  • tracking animals for the sheer joy of casting prints and being one with nature
  • the health of the land through the eyes of a holistic cattleman
  • a river, a city and a region’s heart and soul through an environmentalist’s eyes

I’ve also written pieces couched with the qualifier – “state of” – by looking at how our region tackles new and old challenges around food security, the built environment, criminal justice, youth justice, poverty, journalism, and education in the Inland Northwest, to name a few of the subjects we’ve covered in Metro Talk. Truly remarkable is that this plethora of stories I’ve posed as a thinker and writer has been almost universally accepted for this column space.

From South of the Border Toward Twin Peaks

Just a little history: I started working Spokane Living magazine’s hard news feature writing gig in 2001, when I first arrived from El Paso. It was at the behest of a poet friend who I met while teaching English at Gonzaga to try my hand at writing about Spokane.

I was a new writer in town, and here I was stepping into two rivers at once, seeking a third one. There was the rage of fiction writer, pushing images and locking into some unfathomable perspectives. Then there was the poet, the wordsmith, looking for lazy bends, big pools, fat boulders from which to wax lean into short verse. That last river was, of course, the glacial melt, the entire course of a river, from alpine source braiding and then girding itself into white water as it flows through landscapes and towns and bio-regions until hitting the sea. The river of the journalist.

Grit plus gripping plus relevance plus some chiseling of meaningful words and lasting images. It’s really not overreach, when one considers I, like many, see the value in truth, big or small, lifted into some national spotlight or tucked away in the pages of a magazine like this one.

You go into the story as if every reader matters, as if one’s audience is in the know, and cares, and is connected to community.

Spokane and this Inland Empire, well, it is the stuff of local fiction writers like Jess Walter or Sherman Alexie. It’s the place of Vision Quest, a 1979 book written by Spokane-based Terry Davis. Spokane is the luminescence of high school tribulations, the poetry of varisty athletics, and the very real psychological weight of young Spokanites’ in evolution and their sadness in action, from someone like Spokane writer Chris Crutcher, whose Young Adult books and short stories reveal this place’s youth.

What is place or a sense of place, really? It’s a timeless question, though more mysterious and inaccessible as we move from a community of actual place to communities of purpose. Certainly, place is change, sort of motion locked in time, or at least that’s how opaque our sense of place can become as it crystallizes with age or vis-a-vis the daily experience of knowing who we are through the town we call home.

Poet’s 1925 Birth to 2014 Passing – The Roots of a Town’s Madness, and Escaping

Does anyone remember Carolyn Kizer, that feminist Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was born in Spokane, and who died last October at 89? She won the award in 1985 for a collection called called Yin after the female in Chinese cosmology.
She withered away in a Califronia nursing home from the effects of dementia. She was known as a whippersnapper even at age 7 when she was at a dinner party held by her Spokane parents. Someone asked her about political parties, and she told the guests, “Oh, we veer with the wind.”
Her poetry came from a wellspring deep inside, hitched to the smells, sounds, visual landscapes of place, even little old Spokane: “Poems, to me, do not come from ideas, they come from a series of images that you tuck away in the back of your brain. Little photographic snapshots. Then you get the major vision of the poem, which is like a giant magnet to which all these disparate little impressions fly and adhere, and there is the poem!”
Any place provides a transformative role in our lives, a foil or juxtaposition to our own wanderlust and aspirations not met in some Podunk town or even mega-city like New York City.

As I said earlier, the role of journalist is to get under the skins of this “onion”, the Inland Northwest. To challenge paradigms. To destroy sacred cows. And to unravel parochialism and shine light on faulty systems.

Kizer is yet another spoke in the Spokane wheel of life I have the honor to carry with me. I wish I could have met her personally, spoken to her before the onset of the amber miasma locking away memory of her very valiant, creative life, one where she traveled from Spokane after high school and lifted words from other “places” around the world.

I get the sense that even Carolyn Kizer would have told me that Spokane was the necessary birthing point for her genius, no matter how compelling her struggle with this place. Here, from a 2000 Paris Review interview, she defines place, our place, the entire Inland Northwest.

Kizer: “I wrote poetry off and on in high school, when I could manage to get out of gym classes and sports—using my allergies as an excuse—and climb the hill behind school till I found a nice place to settle down with a notebook and look at Spokane spread out below. As I remember, the first real poem I wrote was about the wheat fields between Spokane and Pullman, to the south. Mother used to say that Spokane was “a walled town,” quoting Ralph Adams Cram; these walls, to her, were the wheat fields to the south, the forests to the east and north, and the desert of the Grand Coulee to the west. I forget what were supposed to be the virtues of a walled town, but it was a metaphor for my mother’s claustrophobia—trapped in this extremely provincial town after living all her adult life in New York and San Francisco (until she met and married my father in her forties). I know that I, too, felt that isolation, with radical parents in an archconservative city—and I also felt trapped, but by the excessive concern of elderly parents with one lone child. Poetry, then, was chiefly a means of escape from a huge, rah-rah high school, from Spokane and from them.”


The End

The origin of art is complex, and perhaps there are a multiplicity of origins, but the making of things may well have followed after the narrating of things. I have never accepted outright the idea of art and aesthetic practice as purely religious or magical. That said, art was and is a mimetic practice that the individual engages in as a way to reconcile his or her own history with History. It is always, even at its origin, a way to overcome the status quo, and to posit imaginary futures.  — John Steppling

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.