Friday, October 21, 2016

Chapter 118: In Which I Discuss the Literature of Transience

So, I'm getting kicked out of my apartment. I'll probably have to leave the San Francisco Bay.

This is the third time I've had to leave the Bay. The first was after I moved here in 2008, and quickly ran out of money. I worked a summer job in Pittsburgh, and ended up staying. Wouldn't trade that for the world, as I made a lot of connections with other writers that have lasted to this day. The second was right after graduate school, when I had no money, and took the first job I could find in Louisiana. This time, I am not broke. I'm doing pretty well. But not well enough to stay in one of the world's most expensive cities.

This comes on a wave of bad luck. In May, I got fired from my teaching job at a private school. It was a toxic atmosphere (the kind of school where they fire a teacher in May, instead of March like a decent person) and it was small loss. Right now, I'm living at a house in West Oakland, in a unit with my landlord, a pretty abusive and miserable person. The kind of person who arbitrarily decides to evict someone, which is happening now. Both job and house were white privilege spaces in which I had to keep my mouth shut in order to save money. I won't miss either. I'm excited for the next step, which will most definitely be an improvement.

Something I notice is how good I am at moving. I've trained myself not to acquire too many things, assuming I'll have to leave whatever space I'm in every two years. I have enough stuff to fit in one suitcase. I accept the fact that I have no control over my circumstances, particularly being a black person in an area where most black people can't afford to live. Where 12,000 blacks left in the last four years. The Bay is being remade into the center of the tech thing, and it's awful. It's a effect of capitalism, not a personal failure. In other words, getting displaced is old hat for me.

The last time I moved was in 2015, when I got evicted from my apartment. Before that, I left Louisiana. Before that, plenty more moves, leading me all over the country. It's interesting to see the things I've carried through so many moves. I keep a lot of things from students, going back to when I first began teaching ten years ago. I have cards from them, notebooks, artwork. Also, I keep all the notebooks and notepads for my writing. Hell, I have post-it cards and receipt papers I wrote on back in 2010. Newspapers from college. These are all things I feel I need to have around me for when I revise certain stories. I'm keeping things that could be helpful with stories: an anthropology conference program, some photocopied notes on the Arabian Nights. I have programs and guest badges from myriad conventions. A subway ticket from Barcelona.

I have a violin I don't even know how to play.

One thing that occurred to me is that most of the fiction notes I've kept are for short stories. The last time I worked on a novel was also the last time I had the space and comfort to do so: during my MFA. It was called The Motley & Plume Players, a project I know I'll finish, as it's stayed in my head for so many years. During my MFA, I was all jazzed to work on it. Then I moved to Louisiana, and had to move twice during that time, and, well . . . I ended up writing a lot of nonfiction pieces for journals.

I loved writing lit crit. It's also something I can write relatively quickly compared to the more journalistic and research projects I'd like to Ta-Nehisi out sometime. And my interest in performance art fell entirely by the wayside when I had to rebuild my community every two years.

I'm finally starting to see how being displaced has influenced my art. Moving so much has made it impossible to have the proper head space, or resources, for longer projects. Case in point: these last few years I've working on a narrative podcast. I went to the L.A. Podfest, learned some things, got all revved up to do it . . . and then my landlady kicked me out. The podcast will have to wait until I'm resettled. I wonder if writers who started later in life, like Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, had the same economic problems that I have keeping them from really delving into their writing careers. Moving has also exposed me to new things all the time, and short stories provide an outlet for that.

Simply put, I've been writing what I can. Things that can be easily digested by whatever writing group I have at the time. My pieces have gotten longer, which is the novelistic impulse coming through. I want to do longer work, and am determined more than ever to write around the transience. And, yes, maybe I should have just become a lawyer. But I didn't.

I recently watched the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Now I'm sure of something I've always suspected: the Japanese might as well have stopped making cartoons after this show. It really is the apex. It's been nothing but moe stuff for otaku since then, and I think the decline in anime quality is correlated to the lack of creativity in Hollywood, where the Japanese always took their ideas. And part of what makes Bebop so great is that it's a show for adults. I love Attack on Titan, but it's a show for teenagers, Harry Potter with vore. Watching the movie, I found I could relate to Spike like I couldn't as a kid. He makes a big deal about how the Bebop is a purgatory for him, and he ultimately confronts his past to find out if he's really alive. In doing so, he dies.

Here's the thing: Spike is alive. He was alive the whole show. He has a job. He has a work partner and does hobbies in his free time. And his job is literally about life and death. He kills people. Spike is living the life of a rover, but his unfinished business makes him feel purgatorial. I think that can describe the experience of a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. If he'd never confronted Vicious, or found some way to kill Vicious without dying himself, he would go on as a bounty hunter and maybe retire. So much of my own life feels ephemeral, when in fact I've been building my writing career at every juncture. Spike's sense of aimlessness, contrasted with how life goes on, is a typical adult experience.

I'm starting to realize the cynical reasons why so many of my peers find a way to legally bind a roommate to them for life, and then fill the house with human beings who they biologically create. None of this was ever my bag (particularly the children part). But within transience there is a lot of room for permanence, which I'm discovering with every move. Regardless, leaving the Bay will be sad. But part of life is learning to say goodbye.

I'll miss the area. Until I return.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"What is the American Dream of a brown peson, except the dream of America leaving us alone?"

The best part of this poem is the last line, which does what good writing does: makes me look at the world differently. I live with a dog whose owner never never plays with it. It's allowed in the yard to run about and constantly yelled at for barking. And damned if that dog doesn't start barking right as I'm listening to this poem. Of course she barks. I would bark, too.

I first became aware of Danez's work at the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland. Poetry is very important to me, and slam particularly so. I honed my skills as a writer at poetry open mics. A few things I learned:

1. Do not get a festival pass to a slam competition. You will end up hating slam.
2. It serves a unique purpose as far as being hiphop for conscious people. You cannot walk into a poetry slam and say oppressive shit. You will get hated on and shamed. If you're a mainstream rapper, you're encouraged to say such nonsense. Slam poetry is the safe space for outsiders, minorities within minorities.
3. It's not real poetry It's dramatic monologue. I can think of very few slam poems I've heard that would work on the page. I have seen few slam poets pay attention to things like meter, enjambment, all those words that come up in your graduate poetry class. But what's important is that they call it poetry. Stake their claim when they take the name of an art form that is, although a little under the radar, very important to white men. They sure do like their sonnets and villanelles, their Whitmans and Shakespeares and every other way they can say how cultured they are. Appropriation of the word "poetry" for something so formless, something that is straight up not poetry is, for me, an intensely subversive act.
4. Slam, at its best, can move me like no other artform. There have always been elements of slam in my writing. The climactic scene in "The Elvis Room" was written with slam cadence in mind. For me, that cadence almost works the way a song does in a Broadway musical. When my characters go about their lives, things can be minimalist or descriptive. But when they feel strong emotion, it turns into slam.

The Nationals were the first time I've seen Danez' work, and I'm pretty sure he did "Dinosaurs in the Hood." That's the one envisioning a 90s movie about fighting dinosaurs, where the people of color are empowered. It was interesting to later find it on my friend's poetry syllabus for her seventh grade class. I've taught it twice myself. The first time was with seventh graders who came from OUSD schools. The second time was with super rich kids at a private school in Dublin, CA. Both times it worked great. Like, "Can we see it again?" great.

I've seen Danez spit a few times, both solo and with the Dark Noise Collective. I suggest you (all eight of you; I check views like a fiend) go out and watch/read everything he's done. His work speaks directly to the genocide of black people. It's also blatantly fantastic, which is my jam. "Dinosaurs" drew me in by his delving full force into such a creative spec-fic scenario. "Alternate Heaven for Black Boys" works with Christian mythology to address genocide. Its based on the idea of black boys murdered by whites finding a paradise in death, which is profound in itself, but made moreso by how important the mythology of Heaven is to black people. Our ancestors were convinced to become Christians by being promised as a place where suffering ends, where you're no longer a slave, and I'm pretty sure the Heaven they envisioned was entirely black. Else it wouldn't be Heaven. I wish more writers in general would mine Christianity for its fantasy properties.

"Genisissy" is an Old Testament riff about the awesomeness of queerness. "Dear White People" (the one which spawned all kinds of dumbass responses from the aforementioned race) is about leaving this busted planet and going to space to get away from whites' racism. I wish I knew more poets who use fantasy elements not only to form the narrative (like Neil Gaiman does, and does well) but to get political. Saul Williams has always excelled at this, as well.

Anyway, enough fangirling. Right now I'm finishing up the manuscript for my new collection. Off to bang out a few more pages.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Chapter 117: In Which I Discuss an Educated Populace

Earlier this year, I attended AWP. It's still a good time. As usual, overwhelming, exhausting, a great way to see friends. It was in California this year, meaning I saw pretty much every writer I knew. It's also depressing. There's no quicker way, as a writer, to feel you don't matter than going to AWP. You're surrounded by people who've also written books, a small percentage of whom have made money at it. And if you're working a dealer table, as I was, you cease to be an artist and become a salesperson. In other words, you ain't shit. Everybody's on an even playing field, trying to sell, until the elegiac final day in which they're just giving the stuff away for free so they won't have to take it on the plane. Maybe you sell enough books to pay the cost of the table, but there's no profit, which is fine, until you consider the conference itself has to be making millions off an event whose main draw is off-site readings. As usual, I found myself surrounded by more successful writers, and it was insanely humbling.

The question being: did I have to leave my house and travel all the way to L.A. just to be humbled? I'm pretty humble already.

Every year I ask myself this, and every year I register again. I think things would be different if I'd put out a book recently; without having new work to show the world, my fire for the writing life has cooled. I don't like promoting old stuff, no matter how good it is, when I know my best work is waiting in the wings.

One thing AWP did very, very well this year was their diversity programming. I went to a lot of panels involving black writers, speaking directly to the genocide of black people in the United States. The keynote speaker was Claudia Rankine, whose so popular she "sold out" the auditorium and I had to watch her speech on video in the run-off room. However, I smelled a conspiracy. Last year, the conference got in hot water because one of their board members, Vanessa Place, was using racist iconography on her Twitter. I'd never heard of her before, but apparently she's some avant-garde, New Wave poet type from long ago. She was removed from the board. Then, all of a sudden, they're inviting black people onto the board! All of a sudden, you've got more panels about James Baldwin and Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde than you can handle.

Which is maybe why I keep coming back to AWP. Why the community of small press writing appeals to me, with its valuing of ideas. When accusations of racism came up, the conference runners tripped over themselves to not be associated. Which makes them the exact opposite of mainstream white America right now. These people identify themselves as scholars and intellectuals, and as such outwardly reject the blatant stupidity racism entails. They don't want to be associated with the mouth breathers at the Trump rallies. Do a lot of college writing programs have a racist bent to them? Sure. For fucking sure. But diversity programming based on fear for reputation is good, far as I'm concerned. In the end, it provided a platform for writers of color they might not have otherwise received.

Certainly not in any type of mainstream, big money industry. Yes, Jay Z makes money--making ultra-capitalist, cynical art. Black creators speaking to the black experience are in an especially unenviable position. When I was a child, Spike Lee was everywhere. Anytime some news station wanted to talk about race, he was there in his Malcolm X shirt, talking shit. This is because, in the 80s and early 90s, white people were feeling alienated. So, like in the 20s and 30s, they turned to black culture as a way of finding authenticity. Hiphop changed the world. Black filmmaking came out of the grindhouse and into the multiplex.

Nowadays, Spike has to crowdfund his movies. That's because white people are no longer interested in the black experience, even for voyeuristic reasons. This is the era of gentrification, the era of Lena Dunham's Brooklyn. They want us gone. After the cities are reclaimed and they've settled, they will get alienated again, and turn back to other cultures for something real. There are, of course, other things at play such as the rise of white supremacy in the country. White voices are the only ones that are currently valued in the mainstream.

Literature, however, real honest to god literature, is still a place for a non-white person to have an in. Because learning about other people and places is, ultimately, why people read books. Literature is a challenging artform, not something for the cowardly, or those closed off to ideas. It really is about the life of the mind, as well as the fun of reading.

At AWP, I went to a great panel with the poet laureate of Los Angeles. And he said, straight up, that a world in which people read would be one where Donald Trump got no traction. So real. The rich intentionally keep the poor ignorant, degrade reading, degrade intellectualism, and perpetuate the myth that everyone's opinions are equally valid, the expert and the raving hatemonger. Poor people buy into this, and they suffer.

As I see it, the main advantage of reading and educating yourself is realizing that so much of what we perceive as normal is, in fact, engineered. Global warming isn't real? A little research shows the "experts" are paid off by corporations. Black people are a race of thugs and drug addicts? A quick Google search reveals crack was shipped into the community by the CIA, as part of the Nixonian scheme to destroy the black community, doubled down on by Reagan and Clinton to criminalize black people and fill prisons. White people are naturally superior? A quick read will tell you whiteness was invented as a way to keep indentured servants from teaming up with African slaves. Capitalism is human nature? Plenty of societies have actually stepped up to the challenge of being an intelligent animal and lived communally. The danger of self-education (i.e. reading books) is the lower classes becoming aware of their education as something that was done to them. A conspiracy. A set-up. Somebody else reads a book and tells you what to think.

Literature is still the realm of ideas and self-education. And that is why I love the community, why I come back again and again, why I travel to spend time with writers. I will always be challenged in such a space, and find art that reflects the diversity of the world. It's awesome.