by Amiri Baraka
When love is perfected, when love
When love is the law
& the measure
The ruler & ruled & body of
of what is body mind of
what is mind
When love & the Soul
then you will always
But this essay by writer Holly Kretschmar about eating her afterbirth (her baby's placenta, the "tree of life") was so unexpected, so weirdly fascinating that I had to share it. Only a writer could analyze what it means to eat yourself.
A basic assumption of Miller's essay is that writers whose work lingers in a slush pile or who self-publish are simply not good enough to find traditional publishers. I don't know if that was ever really the case (certainly some writers have been marginalized because of biases within the industry that are unrelated to talent), but I know that Miller's assumption does not apply to many writers today. Ask any MFA graduate who was good enough to get into a prestigious writing program but who can't find a publisher to buy his book.
I listened to such a person this spring at a panel at AWP. He was a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He published over half of the stories in his story collection with traditional literary journals, but still could not find an agent or publisher who would take him on. He ended up scrapping the collection and publishing sections of his novel online with a site that specializes in audio podcasts. He found a huge audience who liked what he wrote. After finding a market, a traditional publisher became interested and published his work.
That writer was and is talented. His problem was not his writing, but the changing marketplace. The publishing industry is being reshaped by market forces just like the music industry, journalism, and the movie industry. If Miller's essay had not assumed that all unpublished writing is bad, the essay may have provided a less cynical view of how literature and publishing might flourish in our new technological age.
Besides, Ms. Miller, what's wrong with the "democratization of the slush pile"? If you don't like something, don't read it. It shouldn't matter if it's an e-book or the old fashioned kind. But I suspect that the real problem is the democratization of the gatekeepers.
The Backup Singer (an excerpt)
These days, I’m inclined to think that my parents are going insane. I consider flying back home to see if this is true because, hey, these things are hard to gauge by telephone. They sound crazy when we talk, perhaps they’re displaying the first signs of dementia, but how can I be sure? Last week, my mother was going on and on about a recipe from some cooking show that she likes to watch on cable, and my father seizes the phone and screams that my mother has piles of clothes, magazines, and photo albums that are stacked up to the ceiling in the house. That I will find him dead and buried beneath a pile of junk, and don’t say that he didn’t warn me. Then my mother gets back on the phone (she’s calm) and resumes talking about shrimp frittata. My father continues yelling in the background.
Sure, if what daddy says is true, it would be easy to say that my mother is the crazy one in the relationship, except my father is a former entertainer and dramatic by nature. He was a backup singer for Motown, but he has always craved the spotlight. For years my mother and I suffered the brunt of his insatiable need for attention. This year, he has shared this character flaw with the entire country, writing a rambling op-ed that has been published in several papers.
He’s getting lots of media attention for the editorial from places like CNN. To me, the piece reads like a rant. It’s filled with conspiracy theories and self-righteous directives, yet underneath it all I guess there’s a moral truth that people are responding to. Still, this attention-grabbing behavior seems a little “extra,” even for daddy, so Mike and I talk about what’s going on and I purchase a roundtrip ticket to Michigan.
1. That my latest story submission is being seriously considered by two respected journals.
2. That although my a/c faltered the other day during triple-digit heat, it was easily and cheaply repaired and we suffered only three sweaty hours without air.
3. That my family arrived safely in Tennessee and I get three days home alone before I join them.
4. That when I join them, I'll see my many nieces and sisters-in-law (sing: I got all my sisters with me!)
5. That I heard back from an amazing and kind writer-professor who has my manuscript.
6. That said amazing and kind writer-professor has a sense of humor and understood when I misread his name on an email and responded as if talking to an old college friend (their names are that similar).
7. That I continue to have ideas for writing projects.
8. That I will meet friends tonight at Pizzeria Bianco.
9. That today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday and there are no major worries to report.
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
I also thought Helen's story highlighted our nation's geopolitics. Because Israel is a strategic ally in the middle east, the U.S. always supports Israel, at all costs and despite what that nation does in violation of international human rights.
So I've thought about age and politics, there have been discussions about anti-Semitism, but I had not thought about gender as a factor in this story. Anna Clark from Isak touches upon this in her piece for Salon. To what extent do you think Helen's gender played a role in the ferocious reaction to her remarks? Would she have been treated the same way if she were a man?
And back to age: there is something so incredibly fierce about Helen's generation of women which includes the recently departed Lena Horne and Dorothy Height. Thomas was 89, still working, still asking the tough questions front row in the White House. (And can I add that she's a Detroiter and Wayne State graduate? Woop woop!)
I will celebrate my own grandmother's 100th birthday this October and let me tell you, like Helen Thomas, Mama Rubie is no shrinking violet.
The note shown above was written by a very young intern, I'm sure. It's very sweet but I came to hate it because it gave me unrealistic hopes about how easy it would be to publish in Harper's Magazine. I think it was beginner's luck.
The following note, "R, I'd like to see something grownup" from Howard Junker at Zyzzyva was some of the best free advice I received. Of course, at the time I was pissed at this comment about my story with teenaged protagonists:
Keep sending! Keep sending, indeed.
We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
--copyright Gwendolyn Brooks
Hear an audio clip of Ms. Brooks reading her poem here
Read Terrance Hayes' extremely cool variation on Brooks' poem here