Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where I’ll Be This Weekend: Tucson, Arizona

POG presents:

Mark Wallace, K. Lorraine Graham, Lisa Cooper

January 31, 2009. 7:00 P.M., The Drawing Studio

33 S. 6th Ave., Tucson, AZ

I’ve been in Tucson only once before, on a driving trip across the country while I was a teenager that I took with my father and my brother (one of about ten such trips I took between 1969 and 1980, when I went to college). I don’t remember Tucson at all and am looking forward to seeing it and to being in the actual desert, something I haven’t done much of since moving to San Diego. I’m also looking forward to seeing people that I know (Barbara Henning and Renee Angle) or have met (Charles Alexander) or have heard about (Tenney Nathanson), as well as some I know nothing about yet. But this trip to Tucson and a recent blog post by Rodney Koenoke about the thriving, if hardly huge, poetry community in Portland reminded me again about some of the things in the world of alternative poetries (or whatever you want to call it, okay?) that has changed in my years as a writer and is continuing to change.

One of the things that marked my generation (always a questionable notion, but let’s say people who published first books between about 1985 and the later 90s) of North American writers interested in poetic innovation was that we were more diffuse geographically than earlier generations of such poets had been. Not that many years earlier, there had been sizable communities of such writers mainly just in NYC and the Bay Area, although there were smaller but still significant groups in a couple other places. But by the later 80s and early 90s, and certainly far more so by now, there were significant communities centered around alternative poetries in many other places too. I’m going to list them, mainly because I’m pretty sure at least some reader of this blog is going to point out that I’ve missed a place somewhere: Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Tucson, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans (maybe something in Kansas?), Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Durham, even to a smaller extent Richmond and Atlanta. Where else? I don’t claim to know the histories of all these communities, so if you have pertinent additions or corrections, please chime in. (And let me footnote here that the relatively separate histories of Mexican, Caribbean, and South American poets are very important but I just know too little about them).

To me that’s rather a remarkable change. Not that many years ago, the idea of a Surrealist in Minneapolis could be the subject of much wit (“Why did the Surrealist go to Minneapolis? To get to the other side.”). Now, many places you can go, there are some poets there to greet you and talk at least a little bit of your talk, even as, from their individual and regional perspective, what constitutes the environment of alternative poetries always varies to some degree, while at the same time there’s usually significant overlap.

Of course, maintaining life as a practicing poet interested in taking risks with literary norms ( not to mention maintaining life period) is often difficult and at the present capitalist economic moment likely getting more so. The relation between a growing number of poets and changing economic, educational, and social conditions hasn’t been sufficiently accounted for in any piece of writing that I’m aware of. And as might be expected, in all of these places there are poets whose work one likes better than others, or whose personalities are more or less appealing. I can imagine someone saying that this growth in geographical diversity has no automatic connection to the creation of worthwhile literature, or even perhaps that this greater diffusion is a problem because of all these people in all these places taking up, abandoning, or changing literary traditions in just whatever haphazard way they feel like. But for myself, I think this regional expansion might be considered, both sociologically and aesthetically, as a crucial issue regarding what poetry and poets are at this moment in history, one that needs further exploration. With some many poets in so many places, the singularity and cohesion of literary traditions gets challenged. The idea that poetry is only written by a great few and published by one or two presses in one or two places gets replaced by an idea of poetry as part of the daily lives of often relatively ordinary people who nonetheless are writing fascinatingly (sometimes) about their lives and times.

The price, I guess, is obscurity for almost everyone, although most of us were always going to be obscure anyway. And how these circumstances will change in a world of diminished resources is uncertain, at best. But the potential gain—that more people have at least some occasional access to the genuinely exploratory elements of a life devoted to literature, and that possibly that access may expand—seems to me very worthwhile.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fiction International Issue #41: Freaks

Fiction International Issue #41, Freaks, is now available, containing my short story "The End of the World" and many other works of innovative and non-mainstream fiction. If the freak who is the main character of my story is certainly not the most obviously freaky freak in the collection, he may very well be a more common type than we are all comfortable recognizing.

Fiction International is perhaps the main, if not quite only, model for what I called "Submodern Fiction" in the three issues of the fiction magazine of that name which I co-edited along with K. Lorraine Graham. FI features work by writers who are in the main not household names and whose work puts most of them outside the industry of realist fiction that along with genre fiction still dominates American literary culture.

I'm reprinting, here, my introduction to the initial issue of Submodern Fiction in 2003. The environment I describe has changed somewhat since then, especially in terms of community in fiction, but much of the rest of it remains quite similar to what we see now.


Why publish a small magazine devoted to alternative forms of prose narrative?

Anybody who has followed the condition of published fiction in the United States in the last decade knows how bad that condition is right now. Major publishing houses have narrowed the range of the work they will publish, kicking many of the best writers off their roles. A few well established writers of non-traditional narrative, most of whom are nearing the end of their admittedly impressive careers, find their books labeled “postmodern” and mixed with novels highlighting themes well-connected to the niche market that fiction publishing has become--a market that features realism almost exclusively

Of course, the variety of such realism niche markets has grown considerably. Along with upper class realism of manners, realism about urban professionals looking to make a career of love, and realism about steadfast rural families, there are now niches for most major recognizable American cultural categories: a market for the African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American realist novel, a market for realist novels about the urban and rural poor, a market for gay and lesbian realist novels, realist novels about people struggling with illness or disability. And there are markets also for international identity niches as well, and sometimes, as in the case of magical realism, these niches allow for different ways of writing. In and of itself, this variety is a great thing: we certainly need subject matter that challenges the dominance of white heterosexual capitalist culture, and the best of these novels provide complex and important critiques.

At the same time though, too many of these novels, in order to get published, follow not only the dullest of story-telling norms but replicate the central theme of capitalist realism generally: the story of an individual or a family overcoming great obstacles in order to live a successful life, or at least to come to a better understanding “of the vagaries but resilience of the human heart,” as one professional book review after another tells us. These days, everybody can have heart, and that’s a great improvement over eras that believed that heart belonged to some people and not others. Most radical cultural critiques and non-realist forms of writing, however, still get lost. Unfortunately, if there are more cultural categories, there are less things possible to say about them, and less possible ways to say them.

But perhaps these facts are not so surprising. It is capitalism we’re talking about, after all. Can we really expect Random House to come to the rescue? Besides, when thinking about capitalist publishing houses, fiction can hardly claim special levels of persecution. In many ways, it still remains privileged. Most of the best imaginative and critical writing has long since found itself in smaller presses, and obviously much of the most challenging fiction has been doing and will have to do the same.

But fiction, novels especially, presents a different set of problems for the small presses than, say, non-mainstream poetry. It takes a lot more time and money to publish a novel than it does a collection of poems, and few small presses have the necessary resources. Furthermore, the fact that marketplace success remains a possibility for novelists that it is not for poets means that, as Ron Sukenick once said to me after giving a reading, “Most novelists are still invested in the idea of going it alone, because big breakthrough sales are possible for them.” Fiction writers, that is, have not automatically been forced to develop community in the way that non-mainstream poets have: there’s still the sense (which is some combination of freeing and selfish) that it’s possible to succeed on one’s own terms without the help of other writers. As Sukenick pointed out too, though, such a possibility seems increasingly false. These days, writers of alternative narrative need community easily as much as poets. Maybe more so, because right now, those communities don’t always exist.

These problems of community are made worse by the attitudes of many non-mainstream poets, who might seem obvious allies but don’t always think of themselves that way. Most such poets read fiction only for fun, if they read it at all, which many don’t. Poetry, theory, and criticism seem the important work: fiction gets critiqued, even resented, for its continued ties to capitalist production, and not everybody pauses to make distinctions, either on the subject of specific fiction writers or ways of writing it. The fact that the last 20 years of avant garde poetic theory have often labeled narrative as an essential enemy of socially engaged writing has hardly helped matters. There are of course many exceptions to this social division, writers whose fiction moves close to poetry or whose poetry uses alternative ideas of narrative, readers whose eclecticism undermines the self-protection of genre. But however unfortunate and unnecessary it may be, the division remains real.

Even given all these problems, though, it also remains true--importantly--that alternative fiction is far from dead, even if its public profile is lower than at any time since the 1950s. Some structurally challenging writers still manage to find major publishing opportunities: Lydia Davis, Richard Powers, others. Magazines like Conjunctions and Fiction International provide opportunities to publish short alternative narrative. Presses like Fiction Collective II, Burning Deck, Asylum Arts, and Avec Books with its Pivotal Prose series have published excellent books of very risky fiction in recent years. But these worthwhile efforts, surviving however they do, and all of which deserve more critical attention, stand also as examples of how much more can be done. Right now, many writers of alternative narrative have very few places--sometimes none--to publish their work in a country in which hundreds of trash novels are produced yearly.

Of course, a little magazine like this one, featuring a few stories and a few pieces of criticism, can’t do much to change these broad social realities. But my hope is that it can provide at least a small forum for communication among at least a few writers who don’t have such a forum at this time. It can provide an example of what, on a larger scale, there should be more of. Even if this magazine can create nothing more than a conversation and a sense of community between a few friends and anybody else who would like to be interested, I think it can also help create a new model (along with those existing publications that already do so) of what alternative fiction writers might do to survive as creative thinkers.

Poet Rod Smith has been talking for a few years now about his idea (taken in part from Guy Debord) of “submodernism”--the notion that writing in the traditions of modernist experimentation has been surviving in the most recent decades of international capitalism primarily through small publications that cruise underneath the radar of capitalist oversight, even as they remain subject to capital’s power. I think of this magazine, then, as a call for alternative fiction to go submodern, for writers of such fiction to recognize that for most of us, we’re going to survive this way, or not at all. Try to get under the radar, folks, and cruise.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Some New Multiplicities: A Conversation

This is the first round of a conversation with myself, Joseph Mosconi, and K. Lorraine Graham about new directions and multiplicities in poetry and related arts among younger writers.

Joseph lives in Los Angeles, where he works as one of the co-organizers of the Poetic Research Bureau and co-edits the literary and arts journal Area Sneaks. Lorraine lives in Carlsbad, California, about two hours south of L.A., and not very far away from where I live at all, as it turns out. Her book of poems Terminal Humming is forthcoming from Edge Books in 2009, and she’s one of the co-organizers of the Agitprop Literary Series in San Diego.


Mark Wallace: Joseph, in a conversation we had a few weeks back, you claimed that one of the things that was interesting about poets of your current, up-and-coming generation is their use of multiple artistic traditions and cultural contexts. I wonder if you could elaborate on that point. Whose work in particular were you thinking of? Did you mean poets specifically in L.A., or elsewhere as well? The point is similar to one I made in my article "Towards A Free Multiplicity of Form" which discussed among other issues the way poets of our present moment seem to think of themselves as working in (or playing around with) multiple literary traditions rather than belonging in a singular lineage of poetic practice. But my sense was that you thought that this issue was being taken up in new ways at the moment among a crowd of younger poets whose writing you're perhaps more familiar with than I am. Can you give me some examples of how this issue is working itself out at the moment?

Joseph Mosconi: My sense is that there are a number of poets and prose writers from my generation for whom literature, and poetry specifically, is one among many disciplines from which one might seek to build a poetic practice. In this sense we are un-disciplined. I do not use this term pejoratively. It is not an extravagant and promiscuous practice. It is deliberate, considered, and partly a result of our media literacy. Our books are only one form of media. Many poets are well-read in classic, modern and contemporary literature, but some may be even more literate in cinema history, art history or perhaps even (due to the way we were raised) television and Internet history. These various media disciplines inevitably find their way into our work. In Los Angeles there are several young writers whose work crosses these various disciplines. Marcus Civin is a poet who has transcribed Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy's War and Peace into extremely detailed visual poems. The poetry and essays of Stan Apps draw as much from the bathos of television sitcoms as the speculative prose of Montaigne. But I don't think this is necessarily a Los Angeles phenomenon. Poet David Larsen's neo-benshi performance Paris of Troy (in which the poet reads an original text over an excerpt of Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 film Troy) might be his greatest triumph so far. New York poet Brandon Downing's book Dark Brandon is categorized as Poetry/Cinema Studies.

But perhaps, in our original conversation, I was remarking on a phenomenon I've observed in the fields of both poetry and visual art. The installation artist Stephanie Taylor works with a variety of materials and media, but one of her greatest influences may be the OuLiPo and their predecessors, such as Raymond Roussel. She has even begun to give readings at poetry events. Artist Marie Jager appropriated some aspects of a late Victorian science-fiction novel by M.P. Shiel called The Purple Cloud in order to create her beautiful collage video The Purple Cloud (2006). The Orange County Museum of Art even published a poem-sequence by Jager to accompany the video; it is a work of erasure drawn from the Shiel novel, similar to Ronald Johnson's Radi Os.

How all of this differs from previous generations' engagements with various disciplines—what this phenomenon means today, how poets and artists conceive of their influences and traditions, and why they've turned away from "pure" disciplinarity—remains to be theorized. It's not as if this phenomenon is new, exactly. Many of the Surrealist poets were integral to the development of avant-garde film. Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers famously cast his final book of poetry in plaster and exhibited it as a sculpture in 1964. Then he turned to film. "For me," said Broodthaers, "film is simply an extension of language. I began with poetry, moved on to three-dimensional works, finally to film, which combines several artistic elements. That is, it is writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film). The great difficulty lies, of course, in finding a harmony among these three elements." Maybe younger poets today are looking at the freedom of form, discipline , and materials that visual artists have enjoyed for so long and are saying, "Hey, why can't we do that." Whether this is harmonious for poetry or not remains to be seen.

MW: What’s fascinating to me about your response is how you highlight mainly though not exclusively what used to be called “multi-media” work, and especially work that crosses text with film, TV, internet and related influences, that is, artistic media that, visually, moves. Certainly, as you point out, this confluence is hardly new in avant garde contexts, and in fact it’s right at the historical heart of the emergence of avant garde practice in the early part of the 20th century. And it’s absolutely true that such work is hardly localized only here in Southern Calfornia, with Hollywood and that history close at hand. I’m thinking for instance of New York City filmmaker and poet Abigail Child and her genre-crossing work and interest in feminist theory. Still, I wonder whether your focus on those particular kind of multi-media or multi-disciplinary (and we’ll have to talk about the ramifications of multi- vs. un- more in a moment) forms, as opposed to say, work that crosses into realms of music or works with multiple linguistic traditions, does highlight something specific about the nature of current developments in poetry (or work, let’s say, that calls upon poetry in some degree) in this part of the world.

Lorraine, as a poet and visual artist who has recently relocated to Southern California, how do you see these kinds of multi-media, multi-disciplinary approaches in relation to the work of writers “in your generation”? If it’s even relevant to put the question that way. And what do you see as the value of this kind of crossing? What are some of the advantages or pitfalls, in your work or that of others?

Lorraine Graham: Hi Mark and Joseph. My response to you both is now so late that it is absurd, maybe, but I still feel this conversation is relevant, so I hope you're still interested in talking. I've just emerged from a fairly significant period of general malaise (don't call it depression) initially brought on, I think, by not just our no longer recent move to San Diego but also a feeling of frustration when interacting with writers in “my generation.” I love the fact that there is a proliferation of form, discipline, and materials in contemporary poetry right now, but I also feel that having a satisfying and productive conversation about contemporary poetic practice with my peers is incredibly difficult: such conversations require all the participants to have a certain degree of shared interests and the ability to agree on terminology. I guess I mean a discourse.

Obviously, no discourse (especially an interesting one) is static. Shared interests and terms shift and change, participants come and go. I'm certainly not arguing that everyone should refrain from making poetry or talking about it until they are familiar with every element of all poetic traditions. That would be ridiculous and very uptight. But I do think that the agreed meaning of certain terms I was accustomed to using in conversation like "avant-garde," "language poetry," "form," and "content" are a bit more up for grabs.

That's exciting, but it's also confusing. Certain conversations are probably perennial: I'm tempted to see the recent interest in procedural work and Oulipo as well as continued debates about Flarf as part of a fairly constant debate over the relative values of form and content in experimental poetry.

Joseph, I'm struck by your use of the phrase "media literacy" to describe the fact that some poets are perhaps more literate with cinema, art, television, and the Internet than classic, modern, and contemporary literature, or the fact that many are literate in all these media. I spent a substantial part of my life overseas or in Maine with access to only two TV channels, one of which was French-Canadian, so it's not surprising that TV used to freak me out or that my interest in film has come late. I'm literate in new media, certainly, as is most of my (our) generation, but I suspect that this literacy is uneven. While I'm increasingly comfortable participating in conversations about poetry via virtual networks, I'm still getting used to it—especially the pace at which such conversations move and the way they expand horizontally. My point, which is obvious, is that in order to become literate in any form of media, you need to have access and exposure to it so you can develop or become part of discourse about it. It s a cliché to think about New York and LA as a print versus celluloid dichotomy, but I think there is something to that. Perhaps it's not a dichotomy, but more of a continuum that could be useful for thinking about the history of innovative art and media discipline in the United States. What I mean is that geography still does matter, and art and writing communities function differently in different places.

In LA, the visual art community really does feel like it’s the center of the entire art and writing community. In San Francisco, for example, the feeling is completely different—there are plenty of visual and multimedia artists and writers doing interdisciplinary work associated with the Bay area, as you’ve noted. However, the art community there just doesn’t have the history and international reputation and connections that the writing community does. So, given the history of art and media in LA, it’s not surprising to me that so many writers in LA might feel a kind of kinship with Oulipo or conceptual writing.

Mark, I’m still not used to being called a visual artist, but it’s true that I’ve been making and showing visual work for a while now, in addition to making poems. I started making visual pieces shortly after I started teaching at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The first college class I ever taught used the anthology Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, as a textbook. That course as much of an introduction to post-WWII art for me as it was an introduction to critical reading and writing for my students. I started making doodles and reading responses and other visual pieces for the reasons that Joseph suggested—it seemed fun. There was indeed a certain "freedom of form, discipline, and materials" that did make me think "hey, I'm going to try that." It's been relatively easy for me to share and publish my work in the context of visual poetry. That's been great, but at the same time I feel like I don't get the same quality of feedback on my visual work as I do my other work. Maybe that's because I haven't been doing it long, but it's also because, I think, editors are so happy to publish visual work by a woman. I haven't tried to share or show my work in any visual art networks because I wouldn't know where to begin—I'm not at those parties.

I think I've been talking about and conflating at least two different discourses relevant to me and my peers. These categories are inexact and too general, but bear with me for the sake of dialogue. 1) The multi-disciplinary or "un-disciplined" discourse that Joseph described. 2) A discourse that is primarily focused on innovative poetry without necessarily having shared definitions of what innovative poetry is, can be, or should be (Absent magazine and H_NGM_N magazine come to mind). OK, this response is long enough for now!

Friday, January 9, 2009

On Marriage, the State, and Religion (thinking again about Proposition 8)

In the U.S., absolute separation between church and state has been often more fantasy than fact. Nonetheless the principle of the separation of church and state remains crucial for any society attempting to be even slightly democratic, and it is one people should remain committed to, especially in those instances when it still remains mainly fantasy.

There may be no issue on which church and state are more intertwined than marriage. Many of the current debates we have regarding who can or cannot get married become caught in the tangled confusion between church and state on this issue.

Marriage, on the secular, public institutional level, is a contract entered into by the individuals who wish to enter into the contract. While the contract, once signed, should be enforceable under the laws of the state, the state should have no right to determine who can or cannot enter into such a contract.

It’s here that the issue begins to become confused.

For instance, the very idea of the marriage license suggests that the state has the right to determine who is qualified for that license. But I can’t see any ethical grounds on which the state has any such right. As long as the laws of the state are not violated, it shouldn’t be the business of the state to decide whether people can enter into contracts with each other. Contracts between individuals are the business of those individuals. As long as the persons entering into a contract are adults of legal age, it should not be the right of the state to determine who can sign that contract.

In fact, the state really has no right whatsoever to legislate the kind of sexual/romantic/family behavior that adults choose to engage in as long as that behavior does not harm the rights of others. So not only should gay marriage be allowed a legal contract, multiple people should also be allowed to sign such a contract with each other, whether together as a group under a single contract or in several such contracts simultaneously, as long as the terms of the contracts don’t legally contradict each other. The state’s enforcement of serial monogamy really makes no sense: you can have as many marriages as you like, but only one at a time.

Frankly, in many ways, on the secular level, the very idea of marriage is faulty. It confuses the issue of how people agree to share resources with the issue of what kind of sexual behavior they engage in. It would probably be best if marriage, as a secular term, ceased to exist, precisely because this particular confusion, as well as the confusion of church and state, is so central to what the term means. Although it’s hardly as poetic, the term “domestic partnership” seems at least adequate as a legal term to cover all contracts of this kind.

So: on the secular, institutional level, any adult should be allowed to sign a contract for a domestic partnership with any other adult or group of adults to share their resources in any legal way they see fit. As private individuals, they can call themselves married or anything else that they like. The state can enforce the terms of such contracts but has no right to limit who signs them.

Once the confused secular, institutional elements of the idea of marriage are more fairly and properly handled (not that it’s about to happen any time soon, sadly), the question of marriage and religion could be addressed—as it should have been all along—as a separate problem.

Different religions have different traditions. Those traditions, as they should be, are maintained by the religious institutions associated with those religions and by the people who believe in those religions. Such traditions have meaning and power, although all traditions are subject to change and always do change. But the meaning and power of any religious tradition should be decided by the believers in that particular religion, whether as individuals or through their institutions, and by nobody else.

Marriage, as a religious ritual as well as a religious contract, implies systems and standards of belief. As such a ritual, its meaning and power should be determined in any given religious system by the believers and institutions of that system.

If members of the Catholic Church, for instance, or its institutions (which have, inevitably, changed over time), believe that marriage in the Catholic Church means marriage between a man and a woman, then I see no grounds on which it should be my business, as a non-Catholic, to say that they have no right to such a belief or to support it through their church in any way they wish. The issue is one that Catholics should be discussing and debating among themselves.

What the Catholic Church should not have, however, is any right to impose that belief on any citizen who does not wish to believe in the Catholic Church. The church should have no right to limit the kinds of secular contracts that non-Catholics enter into (or even those Catholics who wish to enter into contracts without the Church’s approval).

It does no harm to the meaning and legitimate power of religious systems to say that they have the right to determine for themselves, but not for others, the importance of what they believe in.

Which is why there’s a pretty clear answer to those people who say gay marriage will threaten the status of their own marriages: if your marriage is threatened by what people you may not even know do with their lives, then it’s probably a pretty confused marriage.

So here’s to hoping that someday marriage will be a term that has no secular meaning. Talk about a fantasy... Then again, how many worthwhile ideas are?

Friday, January 2, 2009

lunch with Terry Winch

One of the great things about traveling, even when I'm only going back to places where I used to live, is the chance to meet up with old friends, acquaintances, or new friends, and to talk about things I don't often get to discuss--their way of seeing the world, for instance.

I'm having lunch with Terry Winch today, a great way to get in gear for a new year of poetry, fiction, and criticism. I've never written criticism as such about Terry's work, but I did once introduce him during a celebration of his work that took place at George Washington University, in early 2005, I think. Following is the introduction I gave for him that night at an event full of both students and many of Terry's local friends and readers. If it's hardly a piece of close analysis, I hope it at least says something about why so many people like what Terry does. And while I'm still traveling and won't be writing much new for another week or two, this introduction reminds me of why it's people like Terry who make the world of writers and writing seem like a pleasant environment sometimes, despite all inevitable conflicts.


Although he’s humble enough that I hope saying so doesn’t embarrass him, nonetheless I’m pleased tonight to introduce you to a writer who has stood for several decades now as an example of what is possible in the musical, literary, and cultural life of Washington, DC. In fact I’m tempted to call Terry Winch a local legend, because he certainly deserves that status, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s something about the idea of a legend that suggests an existence primarily in the past. But while Terry’s work shows a complicated understanding of the past, especially but hardly exclusively through his interest in the history of Irish Americans, he remains very involved in the literary life of the present. Terry has encouraged the work, and paid close attention to the lives, of other DC writers, artists, and musicians. His presence in DC has helped many others in the city imagine what they themselves might be capable of if they can maintain Terry’s sense of the importance of remaining committed.

Terry is nothing if not multi-talented. He’s a songwriter, an accomplished accordion player, a fiction writer, a memoirist, and perhaps most centrally a poet whose work can be by turns moving, ironic, and insightful. But what impresses me most about the variety of Terry’s abilities is the almost casual openness with which he moves between these talents. His work never calls attention to its own range, but instead explores the possibilities in the various media he has taken on with a sense of curiosity and adventure that puts the process of creation before the self-importance of the creator. What I’m saying is, Terry doesn’t do all these things to prove he can do them, but because he’s genuinely intrigued by seeing what will happen. His work embodies a truth worth understanding for all of us interested in literature: that the goal of the best writing isn’t to show off the talent of the writer, but to be a way of living life more fully by becoming engaged with the world around us.

This truth shows itself in what to my mind is the most consistent lesson about literature that Terry’s work teaches me, which is that the value of presenting the thing itself is always the best way to present one’s ideas and emotions about the thing. There’s a kind of understatement about Terry’s writing that always seems to me incredibly convincing. The calm, matter of fact voice of his stories and poems never focuses on self-importance but on the story, the situation, the characters and the contexts of it, even when the circumstances have profound emotions attached. The quiet precision of the language allows us to feel the situation like it seems the writer does. We aren’t told of happiness, anger, despair, but instead are allowed to participate in the complex human scenes from which those emotions arise. And this engagement seems to happen without forcing it. Reading Terry’s work is not like sitting in the back of the audience while the guy on stage goes on and on about his wild experiences, although the experiences he discusses can be pretty wild. Instead it’s more like walking down the street and running into a friend who says hey, you won’t believe what I just saw, and it’s true, you don’t believe it, it seems too strange to be real, or no, that’s not right. It seems just strange enough to have the absolute conviction of the real.

Yet through this understatement Terry presents readers with an impressively broad panorama of the 20th and 21st centuries. The life of Irish American immigrants living in New York from the 30s to the 50s, with its hard work and explosive celebrations and moments of community, rage, and loss; his own life in a working Irish band on the road, Celtic Thunder, primarily through the 1980s; trips to Ireland, trips along the East Coast of the U.S. in freezing cars late at night; odd encounters with cab drivers, famous Irish musicians, famous punk musicians, with bar owners and bar fighters and troubled friends and the constant need to find somewhere to eat late at night; with street dancers and dogs on bar stools; struggles with illness and the grinding regularity of work. These concerns are focused by a tight, poetic language that never says more than it has to and always ends up somewhere unexpected, and which, perhaps most strikingly in his poems, takes on a gripping vividness, the words themselves energetically alive to the shock of experience.

I remember talking once with Terry after a reading about the risks that writers and other artists face in a current American social environment which rarely respects creative risks, how for some people it can seem easier to give up, or they just get tired. In thinking about the pitfalls one can face, Terry suggested to me that one of the reasons he himself never gave in to the many vices available to a musician on the road was his sense of always being curious about what was out there, always wanting to know more. “There are just so many things I’m interested in doing, in finding out about,” he said to me, “that I don’t want to waste any of the time that I actually have.” As always with Terry, he was making no grand claim about himself, just explaining why he keeps writing, keeps listening to others, keeps putting himself on the line. But as I’ve often found true of him and his work, it’s just that kind of casual wisdom that makes him so worth hearing and talking with. So it’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Terry Winch.