Witch Kitsch

We went to Salem.

This Massachusetts coastal town has made a peculiar tourist industry out of the fact that it executed 19 people (and two dogs) on charges of witchcraft in 1692. Four others died in prison or under interrogation.

All respect to Giles Corey, the crotchety octogenarian who let himself be pressed to death rather than admit the court’s authority to try him.

In one of history’s ironic twists, Salem is now an epicenter of modern witchcraft culture and fashion. You can hardly walk a block downtown without coming across a shop selling pentacle jewelry, mini cauldrons, psychic readings, crystals, candles, and dolls in pointy hats. Not to mention, this tribute to Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in “Bewitched”.

Visiting Salem as an actual, serious, practicing witch was an adventure in cognitive dissonance and complex emotions–not to mention a temptation to spend way too much money on Goth swag, like this Baphomet pillow I bought to make myself feel better about not getting top surgery.

Aiming for equal parts entertainment and scares, Salem’s witch-tourist museums go in for waxwork tableaux and sensationalist re-enactments of what they call the “witchcraft hysteria”. The presentations include some helpful historical context about the plagues and warfare that stressed the Puritan settlement to the point of irrational scapegoating. Then as now, people were desperate to blame someone for the disconnect between their suffering and the divine blessings they were promised. But of course it would be too controversial to draw those connections for the paying customers, so the popular image of the Puritans remains exotic and remote from the world of their descendants. The official story on the placards is that “of course” witchcraft isn’t real–even as the alternative spirituality business is booming, right outside the door.

Should I, then, mourn Salem’s executed witches as my spiritual ancestors? It’s hard to say, because there’s no good evidence that they considered themselves witches (tortured confessions don’t count). Even if some of them did practice folk magic in secret–practices like hexing or fertility charms having always coexisted alongside official Christianity–the 17th-century witches’ values and cosmology were likely more similar to the Puritans’ than to my Temple of Witchcraft class’s Buddhist-inflected, queer-friendly worldview. Magic is a technology that doesn’t necessarily create common ground among its practitioners. The concentrated collective prayers of right-wing Christians could be seen as a hex designed to wipe out queer people. I began practicing magic in earnest during the Trump years because I perceived a spiritual warfare component to the GOP’s attacks on human rights and Mother Nature. (In my opinion, it’s not really Jesus they are worshiping, but I digress.)

The gender politics of the “hysteria” also left me with unanswered questions. It’s actually remarkable that pre-teen girls’ accusations against prominent men, such as minister George Burroughs, were taken seriously by the church and court system. A number of witches were convicted on the “spectral evidence” of girls’ nightmares and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands. To me this sounded like abuse flashbacks, which can take the form of body memories. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Burroughs was the real perpetrator; don’t haunt me, George.) In dismissing the entire trials as delusional, we may play into the patriarchal script that anything that can’t be confirmed by outside observers is not credible.

The irreverence of the waxwork history tours troubled me at first, but then I recognized it as a form of “whistling past the graveyard”. At Halloween, we dress up as what we fear, to make our mortal vulnerability manageable through play. We put our heads in the stocks as a joke, to dispel the unease of imagining our own neighbors turning on us.

Salem was also the birthplace of the great fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose work you can read for free at AmericanLiterature.com. I wrote my college thesis on original sin in his stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”, two Gothic fantasies about prideful scientists whose drive for “perfection” destroys the women they love most (to the extent that a narcissist can love!). A descendant of witch-trials judge John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from that history. I understand him better after visiting the Witch City. Throughout his work, he struggles with inherited sin. On the one hand, he wants to hope that descendants can break a cursed pattern, even if the cost to themselves is high. On the other hand, he’s enough of a Puritan to remind progress-intoxicated Americans that human nature is permanently flawed. We trade religion for science, we scoff at the past, but the same impulses that drove the witch trials remain in our hearts.

I don’t think Hawthorne would be a fan of the “Scarlet Letter” coffee mugs in the House of Seven Gables Gift Shop, but this fan art by Wendy Snow-Lang shows why Melville thought Nat was such a snack:

Transition goals, am I right?

More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.

July Links Roundup: Free at Last

Readers of this blog may remember my pen pal “Conway”, the poet and artist who was serving 25-to-life under California’s three-strikes sentencing law for stealing a motorcycle. This Independence Day finally has real meaning for him, because he is FREE! He is thriving in a re-entry program in Los Angeles, reuniting with his devoted daughters and learning how to use the Internet. He dreams of opening up his own auto repair shop and tattoo parlor. Read more of his poetry here and here, or browse the Prison Letters category on this blog.

Several factors converged to make this miracle happen (if you can really call it a miracle for a man to spend 29 years of his life in jail for petty theft). The new Los Angeles County D.A. is no longer opposing early-release petitions under Prop 36, the 2008 referendum that retroactively repealed the harsh sentencing law. Stanford Law School’s pro bono clinic continues to help my friend navigate the legal system that profits from keeping people under perpetual surveillance, even when they’ve served their time–and then some. And I applied the full force of four months of witchcraft training to send him protective energy and courage.

Though Conway’s exodus is cause for tremendous rejoicing, millions more Americans are still trapped in prisons and jails that violate their human rights to medical care, adequate food and shelter, voting access, and speedy trial, among other indignities. In June, Harper’s Bazaar, in partnership with the PEN Prison Writing Program, published this worthwhile feature: “5 Formerly or Currently Incarcerated Writers on What Freedom Means to Them”. The personal essays include criminal justice reform leader Vivian D. Nixon on reclaiming the freedom to use African-American Vernacular English, and Elizabeth Hawes on music and literature as a lifeline behind bars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native American and Canadian Indigenous children suffered another type of unjust incarceration in euphemistically named “residential schools”. Governments run by white people stole the children from their families, with the goal of eradicating Native languages and cultures. This genocidal project has been in the news lately with the discoveries of mass graves on the sites of some schools. Many more doubtless remain to be unearthed, as conditions at the schools were brutal. This online curriculum from Facing History describes the shameful role of Christian missionaries and educators in running these institutions.

To help bring justice to Native Americans today, consider donating to Lakota People’s Law Project. Their initiatives include fighting for voting rights, creating community centers for Native youth, and protecting the land and water from pipeline pollution.

Truly the best essay I’ve read in a long time is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from the 2002 anthology Touching Feeling. Eve understands what’s wrong with The Discourse. Does debunking everything make you feel better? Does it help you understand what to do about the brokenness of the world? Especially in 2021, is the trash fire even news? Suspicion is not always the most progressive hermeneutic. Nor is exposure automatically effective at producing change, because people may still be apathetic, wedded to fake news, or too hopeless to act on what they’ve learned. Sedgwick suggests that one can see systemic oppression clearly, yet still be committed to a reparative approach that aims at maximizing love and pleasure, rather than the paranoid priority of avoiding all bad surprises.

45 Shining Harvey Milk Quotes - SayingImages.com

Two Poems from Joshua Michael Stewart’s “Break Every String”

Western Massachusetts poet Joshua Michael Stewart came to my attention through Straw Dog Writers Guild, where he’s a popular frequent reader at open mics and literary events. (Take advantage of the Zoom era and drop in on their upcoming readings!) As a Buddhist, Joshua is modest about his literary reputation, but I, for one, want him to be famous, because the guy has a helluva voice.

I recently finished his 2016 collection from Levellers Press, Break Every String. This lyrical autobiography is a blues song for the dead-end economy of Midwestern towns and the family wreckage they harbor. His characters crackle with energy that could find its outlet in verses or fists, parenting your own children or stealing someone else’s, a guitar or a bottle. Stewart writes of his teen years: “I was nabbed for keeping up the family business–shoving merchandise down my pants.” As the one who escaped, Stewart plays through all the octaves of emotion, from gratitude to judgmental pride, to survivor guilt, to wary compassion: “of loving/the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.”

Several poems are titled “After Ohio”, each beginning with an excerpt from a letter from his mother, who is usually updating him on his ex-con brother’s bumpy road in and out of sobriety. In one of these pieces, Stewart begins, with his characteristic deadpan humor: “When scoring a revolver from a guy/who lives out of his car, you don’t plan/much of anything else for that day.” The poem recounts how he wandered into a bookstore and bought a book of poetry when the guy didn’t show up. The tipping point between his fate and his brother’s could be just that random and precarious. I found myself thinking of the ending of the film Angels with Dirty Faces: “let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Joshua has kindly given me permission to reprint the poems below. He’s just finished a new manuscript–I hope it gets published soon!

NEVER ASK WHAT’S UNDER THE BED

Your grandfather once shot a man,
my mother says over pea soup on the porch—
chucked his sorry ass down a well,
kept the man’s false teeth as a souvenir.
Take that to your fancy school
for when you forget who you are.
The jobs have ditched town, and the freight
trains are gone—no longer rattling
windows, shaking nails from rotten studs.
The house shivers on its own.
We move out to the yard, squat down
on five-gallon buckets and scavenge fallen
pears among dandelions and bluegrass,
my favorite AC/DC T-shirt and my woodshop award
stuffed in a cardboard suitcase at my feet.
My generation, we didn’t have learning
disabilities, we just drank homebrew,
and threw knives at each other.
Sweetness drips off her chin,
her mouth a honeycomb of bees.

****

MOTHER, THESE AREN’T YOUR FLOWERS

I thrust open a stubborn window,
causing a book to plop on its side,
slide off the shelf and, washed over

by a wave of other books, crash
into a rose-filled vase that smacks
on the hardwood floor.

What follows is silence, the split
second after a mother slaps
her child. I’ll let the water search

the valleys of the room, finger
the petal-thorns and prism-shards.
This isn’t your carpet ruined

by spilt paint. You will not lean
in the doorway smelling of strawberries
and righteousness. No wailing

or pleading here, only the quiet
twinge of panic ingrained
by the memory of your nearness.

March Links Roundup: Unseen on Mulberry Street

It’s March! Spring is coming and links are a-blooming.

It was reported this morning that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that manages the author’s intellectual property, would cease reprinting six of his picture books because of racist illustrations. The best-known of these titles were On Beyond Zebra, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. The AP news article explains:

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

I’m not sure what to think about this decision. A fair number of the classic picture books I’ve read to the Young Master contain incidental images that are offensive. For instance, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (1977) show natural history museum mannequins in Native American garb, and I’m sure many other books show white kids dressing up in feathered headdresses, because that was considered a normal costume. When I read these books aloud (many, many times), I would revise the text to say “Danny saw artifacts stolen from Native peoples” or some such, but that likely went over my son’s head. So I understand the impulse to withhold these types of images altogether from children who are too young to consider them critically.

On the other hand, I wonder whether editing the past also perpetuates racism, by giving children the false impression that literature has always been morally pure–or ever can be. Surely today’s books have other flaws that we haven’t yet recognized. Are we setting kids up to be defensive about their future problematic faves, instead of teaching them from an early age to tolerate moral ambiguity? Every now and then, a well-meaning school bans Huckleberry Finn because it contains the N-word, but it seems more productive to study how an anti-slavery work by a white author can still contain racist stereotypes.

A more clear-cut example of bad educational decisions comes to us from Utah, where trans author Kyle Lukoff’s picture book Call Me Max led to the banning of an entire curriculum that didn’t even include his book. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A Murray [School District] teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.

The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of “Call Me Max” from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity…

…Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.

It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.

For the record, Shane and I enjoyed this picture book very much! Lukoff presented Max and the Talent Show and When Aidan Became a Brother at an online story hour at the BGSQD Bookstore last month and I cried all the way through. Contrary to what the guys on my trans masc Facebook group report, I’m just as weepy as I’ve always been. Must be my Cancer Sun.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up knowing that trans men existed. But it’s never too late to come out. Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head, who premiered in 1952, is going gender-neutral. Bloomberg.com has the mashed-potato scoop:

Starting in the fall, Hasbro will sell Potato Head family kits. They’ll come with two non-gendered “adult” potatoes, one “baby” potato and 42 accessories, according to a spokeswoman. That will let kids decide the parents’ gender, rather than being told they are “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

I haven’t been this vain since I was 10 years old. I found a dozen old photo albums in the basement last year and I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty cute my whole life but I looked very uncomfortable being alive.” Whereas now I will use any excuse to post a picture of myself in suspenders. A.E. Osworth explains why, in this September 2020 article at Catapult: “Taking Thirst Traps to Preserve Myself–and My Transition–in the Middle of the Pandemic”.

In the absence of my meatspace body living in the minds of my people, am I preserving this slice of time to be accessed later? Am I imbuing my early-testosterone body with immortality, marking its existence? Since when did I want my body at all, let alone to make it last for human eternity?

“It feels like a protest against this idea that it’s polite to not find yourself attractive,” my friend A. Andrews says to me over Zoom when I ask them about thirst trapping. A is a writer and a comic artist. They think about the arrival of bodies in digital space quite a lot, usually because they are drawing bodies into existence. A falls into category two—less thirst trapping, more existential crises. But they talk to me about it anyway.

“It’s considered rude or self-involved to think you’re hot,” A says. “This idea that we have to kind of think of ourselves as objectively neutral or below is weird. Thirst traps are a protest against this notion that we should all feel kind of medium about ourselves.”

I consider my adherence to a politeness written upon the hearts of girl-children, the over-emphasis of humble-as-virtue. It is an insurance that anyone with any relationship to girlhood, regardless of gender or outcome, will feel squeamish taking up a reasonable amount of space. Will disparage their own body until they feel less than they are: stunning. Everyone is stunning and I really believe that; everyone, of course, except for me.

Fuck that. I would rather be the Halloween crowd, unshackle myself from the normals. Love myself just a little bit more.

Feast your eyes on this non-gendered “adult” potato.

Poems for All, Big and Small

My online friend Paul Fericano, author of the wonderfully irreverent poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press), has just surprised me with a gift that combines two of my special interests: poetry and miniatures. It’s a subscription to Poems-For-All, a California publisher that creates two-inch-square illustrated books with a single poem inside. My first packet includes 18 delightful tiny volumes by authors such as Alice Notley, Kim Shuck, and Jack Hirschman, plus some self-styled “pointlessly small bookmarks”.

As you can see, these books are popular at Winning Writers HQ.

Lesléa Newman’s “I Wish My Father” Is a Tragicomic Elegy

Shepherding an elderly parent through illness and death is a stark, unglamorous journey that demands clear vision and directness, and (especially if you’re a Jewish New Yorker) a fair amount of gallows humor. These qualities abound in Lesléa Newman’s latest poetry collection, I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021).

Dedicated to Edward Newman (1927-2017), a dapper and hardworking New York attorney, this sequence of narrative poems cycles repeatedly through grief, frustration, and absurd humor, as his adult daughter endeavors to preserve his dignity and safety (not always compatible goals) while his grasp of reality weakens. There’s a certain kind of Jewish couple for whom bickering is a love language. One gets the sense that Newman’s late parents often communicated in this register, which makes her widowed father’s moments of romantic sorrow all the more poignant.

The collection is unified not only by the storyline but also by a formal similarity among the poems. Each poem’s title serves as the first phrase of a sentence that continues as a sequence of three-line stanzas. This device, never obtrusive, reinforces the feeling of sameness that must have burdened her father’s days once his mainstays of work and marriage were torn away. And yet there is change, painfully perceptible to his daughter if not to him.

…He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper

of that terrible last day. Don’t worry,
sweetheart. She cupped my cheek
with her worn, withered hand.

There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.

Now, that puts the “dead” in deadpan humor. Look how deftly the anecdote is saved from sentimentality by an unpredictable bit of very Jewish wisdom that is both optimistic and so pessimistic we can hardly stand it. As Leonard Cohen sang, You want it darker…

Faith is more than a cultural style here, though. Mr. Newman seems largely contented by his delusions–or are they visions?–of mysterious children at his bedside and random dead people from his past. Together they observe Yom Kippur in a nontraditional way that still brings his daughter closer to the mysteries of time, repentance, and forgiveness. And when he is released from his earthly life, she narrates his arrival at her mother’s side in the World to Come, in exactly the same factual voice as the preceding poems.

I appreciate how this book is accessible to readers without a background in poetry, while also revealing depths to an experienced writer and reader. Even the Young Master took an interest when he saw the book cover, asking me “What does that mean? I wish my father what?” I read him the title poem, about Lesléa’s father tallying the events of his life at age 90, and then asked Shane, “What do you think she wishes for her father?” His suggestions:

I wish my father was still alive.
I wish my father had a good life.
I wish my father knows he was the best.

I Wish My Father by Leslea Newman

Click the cover image to be taken to the book purchasing website. Lesléa has kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below.

MY FATHER WAS NEVER

on time once in his entire life.
No, we could always count
on him being a good 20 minutes

early. I remember many a Saturday
night with my dad dressed
to the nines in his sleek black tux

and glittering diamond studs
pacing the hallway from front
door to kitchen to dining room

before ordering me to dash
upstairs and see what was taking
my impossible mother so goddamn

long. I’d find her sitting side saddle
on a stool in a white silk slip
surrounded by crumpled tissues

imprinted with lip prints
of lipstck the color of apples,
clasping a sparkling bracelet

around her wrist, clipping
on a pair of matching earrings
and muttering to herself in the bedroom

mirror. “I know the early bird catches
the worm. But who the hell
wants a goddamn worm?” She’d hand

me a pendant shaped like a tear
to fasten around her neck,
then raise a silver aerosol can

the hairspray hissing like a snake
as she circled her head three times
forcing me to step back from the cloud

that always made me cough. Once
I came home from college
for Thanksgiving and my dad

drove me to the airport for my return
flight on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Somehow my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase

never made it out to the car.
After a ton of yelling and screaming
and carrying on, my father drove

us home and drove us back
to the airport and I was still
an hour early for my flight.

It made me laugh when my father
proudly showed me a note
he received after my mother died:

Dear Mr. Newman,
Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.
You were the first one there.

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

 

© 2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2020

Your humble transmasculine fashion influencer has had an intense year. As have we all.

Greatest accomplishment: Staying alive.

Other greatest accomplishment: Finished a draft of Origin Story, my second novel about butts and sadness.

Currently writing: Poems about dinosaur masturbation and vat-grown human flesh steaks for my third collection in progress, Made Man.

Soundtrack of my days: Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell”; various artists, “Karneval Top 50: The Very Best of German Karneval”

New obsession: Jigsaw puzzles. We were given a ridiculously difficult Harry Potter puzzle last year that we dug out of the closet during the first weeks of lockdown. I discovered that putting physical objects in order is extremely soothing when the world is falling apart. Also, that all puzzle manufacturers are not created equal. I give top marks to Ravensburger, Pomegranate, and New York Puzzle Company.

Edward Gorey book covers puzzle (Pomegranate)

Most ridiculous purchase: Doll-sized penises on Etsy for my FTM Barbies.

Binge-watching: “Bob’s Burgers” on Hulu. I was a Tina who grew up to be a Gene.

Feeling Meme-ish: Bob's Burgers - Paste

Best novel read in 2020: Eve Tushnet’s second novel, Punishment: A Love Story, was the first work of fiction I read this year, and nothing has quite equaled it. No one is better at exploring the blurred lines between self-destruction, kinky submission, and religious humility. Set at a Washington, DC halfway house for former prisoners re-integrating into society, this wickedly funny tale includes (among other things) a predatory cult, a tender romance between a male sex worker and a figure skater who calls himself “Trash”, and a stolen owl who might be the Holy Spirit.

Best memoir: Obviously, Daniel M. Lavery’s essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (published as Daniel Mallory Ortberg). The humorist who co-founded The Toast finds transmasculine resonance in a wide range of stories, from Greek mythology to “Columbo” and “Star Trek”. The comical riffs bookend deeper reflections about the self-mistrust and emotional shutdown he learned from his evangelical upbringing, and how these factors delayed his transition.

Goals for 2021: Hahahaha.

Latest Bobs Burgers GIFs | Gfycat

Have a safe and peaceful holiday season, readers.

 

 

November Links Roundup: Testify to Love

Thanks for your patience, readers. The link farm harvest is a bit late this month because I’ve been front-loading my Winning Writers work in anticipation of another school shutdown. The Young Master and I expect to spend the winter making art and lighting fires.

Over a decade ago, when I was deep into Gay-or-Christian angst, the Christian pop band Avalon’s song “Testify to Love” always renewed my desperate hope that God accepted me as I was. Even now, when a lot of Christian media is triggering to me, this song gives me joy. I wondered whether I was just reading my own preoccupations into the opening line, “All the colors of the rainbow…” But this People Magazine article from September shows that my gaydar was correct–as is my instinct to mistrust evangelicals: “Former Avalon Singer Michael Passons Says He Was Kicked Out of Christian Band for Being Gay”.

Michael Passons, a founding member of Avalon who left the Christian band 17 years ago, is opening up about his departure from the group.

The singer-songwriter, 54…said that he was confronted by his former bandmates on June 30, 2003, to leave Avalon.

“Avalon showed up at my house and told me I was no longer in the group,” he said. “And it was all because of who I am.”

The artist also said that he was “required to attend some reparative therapy sessions” prior to his exit, which like conversion therapy, is an attempt is made to try to make someone identify as heterosexual.

Acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell, though not a religious man, has a devotional cast of mind that makes his literary criticism especially insightful. An admirer of St. Augustine, Greenwell often writes about how our desires and needs are a mystery to ourselves. The liberal, rational self envisioned by the literary marketplace has too narrow a time horizon and too judgmental an imagination, he proposes in his Harper’s essay “Making Meaning: Against ‘Relevance’ in Art”. Although the current push for “relevance” provided a necessary corrective to the presumption that only stories in a certain demographic are “universal”, taken to extremes this demand denies the possibility of grace, understood in the humanistic sense as the opportunity to be confronted with the divinity in any person (even middle-class white men!).

[I[t is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

And he also deftly subtweets Marilynne Robinson. Go read the whole essay.

Along with “relevance”, the idea of a “writing career” is an idol that periodically needs to be dethroned. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, themselves no stranger to literary accolades, diagrammed the mutual back-scratching among winners of the most prestigious awards, in their article “On Poets and Prizes” at ASAP Journal. The ostensible goal of awards is to make poetry visible and relevant (that word again) to the general public. In addition, prizes are the only way that most poets ever get paid for their writing. Spahr and Young’s data-crunching showed that although winners’ racial and gender demographics have finally diversified in the past 5-10 years, their background is still quite elite and insular:

The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners… Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Hey, I went to Harvard! Where’s my money?

Philosopher Adam Kotsko decries the pressure to prove the humanities’ worth in terms of market forces, in his article “Not Persuasion, But Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”, part of a forum in Boston Review on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus”.

For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.

I’ve spent the past five years working on a novel, which means I haven’t written anything I can make money from. I miss that sweet short story prize cash. But Origin Story is hard to excerpt. You need context for those blow jobs. At Craft Literary, novelist Maria Cichosz (Cam and Beau) explains why in “For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt”.

The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

Finally, I have to share this fierce and funny Missouri Review poem-of-the-week by Katie Erbs, “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once”. It’s not what you think. Check it out.