Monday, 1 October 2012

Sweat & Small Presses

Small presses are the sweat equity media of our Age of Bloat. So don’t moan about Rush Limbaugh and his righteous-leaning hordes of dittoheads. Don’t flail about TV news squalidly downsizing itself to supermarketable tabloids. Don’t cluck about the sentimental Oprahfication of our afternoons. To every stupid reaction there is an equal and potentially liberation action.

Life-enhancing mini-media springing up gloriously as anti-bodies to this massive mushification of the American psyche. Alternative weeklies. Syndicated radio series like those from Jim Hightower or Erwin Knoll. Fanzines for every conceivable itch to be scratched. And small presses—for poetry and prose.

Some even grow to be continentally overspreading O.K.’s like the Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, the serious hobby of Louis D. Rubin, an American literature professor who could create as well as critique. Sometimes they’re the offspring of activist poets like Robert Bly. Whatever they are, or from wherever they come, they are perennially green affirmations to the gloom that media doomsters are too ready to lay on us.

Take two contemporary writers who would be blooming to blush almost unseen were it not for the clarion calls of our small presses: that Canadian Maritimes Whitman, Alden Nowlan (1933-83), and the Ojibway guru, Jim Northrup (1943- ). The best way to start possessing Alden is to quote his “right to life” poem:

“It’s Good to Be Here”

I’m in trouble, she said
to him. That was the first
time in history that anyone
had ever spoken of me.

It was 1932 when she
was just fourteen years old
and men like him
worked all day for
one stinking dollar.

There’s quinine, she said.
That’s bullshit, he told her.

Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.

While I lay curled up,
my heart beating,
in the darkness inside her.

From What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread, Nineties Press, Ally Press Center, 524 Orleans St., St. Paul, MN 55107, $10.

Nowlan’s muse stick for the most part to the hard-scrabble life he knew best, blue collar and bruised, but gradually expanding to include his experiences as a provincial journalist, finally a writer in residence at the University of New Brunswick in Frederickton, where, alas, he died at the height of his powers at age 50.

One reason adduced for the decline of poetry reading since the rise of Modernism has been the elusiveness of the allusions that the T.S. Eliots and Ezra Pounds brought to bear on the median imagination. No such excuse to bear on the median imagination. No such excuse to avoid Nowlan. Alden was a big and bulky man who favored “ugly” beasts like the Bull Moose for his muse. His paean to that animal concludes:

            How good it is to share
            the earth with such creatures
            and how unthinkable it would have been
            to have missed all this
            by not being born:
            a happy thought, that,
            for not being born is
            the only tragedy
            that we can imagine
            but need never fear.

What a delectable cheer for the curious dilemma of being alive. William Blake would have loved it.

Jim Northrup is an entirely different feast, although there are similarities of theme: dispirited people living short, brutish lives of violence and abuse. The Vietnam War looms large in Walking the Rez Road, (Voyageur Press, Inc., 123 N. Second St., Stillwater, MN 55082, $15.95. 1-800-888-9653.) The road to and from his reservation is marked by nightmares from that war, as in “walking point,” which begins:

            With his asshole puckered up tight
            the marine was walking point.
            He was hunting men
            who were hunting him.

Then ends:

            The shooting is over in five seconds
            the shakes are over in a half hour
            the memories are over never.

Nor, it seems, is our divided consciousness ever over it, with Ollie North running to great acclaim for Senate, and Tom Marr (WWDB-FM, Saturdays, 8-11 p.m.) repeating himself obsessively about Clinton’s “consorting with deserters in Norway,” marching with the Viet Cong flag in London, and staying at KGB-infested hotels in Moscow. In these United States of Amnesia, Northrup reminds his fellow Americans that the ambiguities of his people fighting their wars didn’t begin at Da Nang. “Ogichidag” (Ojibway for “warrior”) pursues that theme:


            I was born in war, WW Two.
            Listened as the old men told stories
            Of getting gassed in the trenches, WW One.
            Saw my uncles come back from
            Guadalcanal, North Africa,
            And the Battle of the Bulge
            Memorized the war stories
            My cousins told of Korea.
            Felt the fear in their voices.
            it was my turn,
            my brothers too.
            Joined the marines in time
            for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
            Heard the crack of rifles
            in the rice paddies south of Da Nang.
            Watched my friends die there
            then tasted the bitterness of
            the only war America ever lost.
            My son is now a warrior.
            Will I listen to his war stories
            or cry into his open grave?

But I don’t want to leave the impression there is only one arrow in his quiver. He is very shrewd in his comments on the dominant society:

            “brown and white peek”

            What’s it like living on the rez?
            I’m always asked.
            It’s living near a lot of relatives
            ready to help or gossip about our need for help.
            The word reservation is a misnomer
            reserved for who?
            The white man owns 80 percent of my rez, Fonjalack.
            Living there means finding something good in something grim.
            Glad for our chronic unemployment
            when the white guys get lung cancer
            from breathing asbestos at the mill.
            70 percent unemployment on the rez
            go down the road a few miles, it’s 5 percent.

            We have TV, that window to America
            we see you, you don’t see us.

Except when you plug into a small press circuit, and then have a red Virgil lead you through his circles of an American hell.

I didn’t understand why his tribe’s annual ritual of spearing fish (this really bugs the non-Indians) or harvesting wild rice were such big things. Reading his book clues me in: Such spiritual resources keep him from giving in to despair—or cynicism.

The last time I saw such a mechanism at work was in Lithuania, where cherishing their language and repertory of folk arts gave the people strength to endure 50 years of Soviet imperialism. And at a film festival at Fontenoy-sous-Bois, recently, I interviewed a Georgian film director whose feature pivoted around the felt particularities of national anthems and Tbilisi folklore. She saw those traits in the same way: armor against psychological invasion or entrapment.

Ultimately that’s why I’m suspicious of the “harmless” blandnesses of Disney culture. It subverts the particular, erodes the local. Small presses in particular, mini-media in general, support the life-insuring options. Small really is beautiful, bountiful. Keep those circuits open, and massive blah-blah falls of its own fatuities.

From Welcomat, June 15, 1994

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