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updated 12/03/2005

The start of this blog

Colorado as Colossus [12/01/05]

How the forthcoming identity papers book evolved.... [12/03/05]

Some digressions

a post-AWP debriefing on a reading off the path

 

jeffrey.lee@unco.edu

 

A Writer's Blog (Responses & Questions welcome....)

 

 

[Thursday Dec 1, 2005]

 

I'm far behind in this blog, and I'm doing it "backward" from the point of view of the blogosphere. It should be updated regularly with the most recent entries at the "top" of the web page. I am embarrassed at how long it has been since I came back to write about the writing life. I have good excuses, but I am not at liberty to describe them. Here is one thing I've wanted to say for a while:

 

Colorado as a literary region seems to be very quickly growing self-aware of its own strength. This is sort of like the moment when, in the science fiction movie Colossus, or The Terminator, the supercomputer becomes "alive" and "networks" with other computer networks. But Colorado as a literary "center" is not becoming a Colossus due to a sudden influx of great talent or money or institutional support. Many great writers, journals, institutions etc. have been plugging away here for many decades, even at University of Northern Colorado, formerly the home of Colorado North Review, which published Bukowski and many other great poets and writers. There is no shortage of long term "star power," either, thanks especially to some of the Beatniks and their millions of ardent fans. I have not been in Colorado long enough to pretend to understand why this is happening, but I saw something similar happen before in Philadelphia, maybe ten years ago.

 

In Philly, there was a kind of a poetry "renaissance" as many pre-existing and well-established publications, institutions and associations became more interconnected than they were before. Perhaps part of this was due to an older generation leaving the stage and taking with them some of their ideas that had kept them aloof from each other. Not to name any names, but if a major publication or institution has someone at the helm who has alienated whole segments of the greater literary audience of intelligent, thoughtful readers—the people who actually buy books and love them, who attend writing workshops, who go to literary festivals and events—then new people at the helm have an opportunity to clean the slate. Some significant parts of the literary world of Philly passed into new hands, and some of them were quick to exploit some very obvious networks to re-connect literary audiences to writers. This was (and continues to be) a good thing as it unfolds.

 

So I have noticed this analogous phenomenon in Colorado, i.e. some relatively new hands are seizing some obvious opportunities to reconnect literary audiences to writers, and there are more and cheaper ways to facilitate such networks—like the blogosphere, and the literary logosphere on the web. Many of the people involved in this Western "renaissance" are, interestingly, not necessarily Western in origin or outlook. In the Philly "renaissance," many of the people who helped to change things were also from elsewhere.

 

A few signs: when I saw Mary Crow, the Colorado Poet Laureate, read at UNC in May of 2005 and when I went to the Small Press Festival at C U Boulder, I realized that the "awakening" of Colorado was more widespread and deeper than I'd realized.

 

Not everyone is aware of this, however. At the same time that Colorado is becoming more confident as a literary place to be, there are still plenty of Western people who will automatically assume that anything from Colorado must not be that good or it would have moved either east or west.

 

I tried to explain this to my students, most of whom are natives of the West. It is really painfully obvious to me when native Coloradans toss aside The Bloomsbury Review when they see it is from Denver. I have to explain to them that it is a big and important nationwide literary review. Many Mountains Moving, which was based in Boulder from 1994-2005, also was stigmatized by Coloradans because it was something from Colorado. It's sort of like the opposite of the halo effect that, say, The New Yorker gets from New York City.

 

The regular audiences at literary events are actually a significant measure of cultural change. I'm not talking about "big" audiences but about well-read, thoughtful, interested audiences. When you see that kind of audience appearing regularly and voluntarily at a reading series or an event, than something significant has happened. Denver and Boulder audiences, in particular, have great depth and range and diversity.

 

Most people do not think about how important and how valuable that kind of an audience is, but literary culture—any literary culture—would die without such an audience. Great audiences demand great art. In the end, the writers, the institutions and publications cannot do anything worthwhile if there are not people who care out there. New York is the great literary center that it is not thanks to the things that support literary culture but thanks to the New Yorkers themselves, the people who actually populate all the institutions, staff the publications, and hunger for the greatest art.

 

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[Thursday Dec 3, 2005]

 

How did this forthcoming identity papers book evolve?

 

I wrote about this a little in the Preface to the work, but, to explain in more detail, after the initial shock of the attack and the actual pain of the injuries started to fade in August 1994, I had to deal with the much deeper, longer lasting emotional fallout.

 

A sort of a relative who I never liked was really obnoxious to me one day not long after the attack—within weeks. Prior to that time, I’d have just let it go when he habitually did hostile things when I had to visit, like, for example, smearing food that was a gift on the roof of my car or being rude and insulting. But this time I was ready to really hurt him very seriously. I put my keys between my knuckles with the hope of sending him to a hospital. He, I learned later, was ready to go for a knife. Someone intervened so that nothing happened, but after that I knew that I was a lot more violent than I’d ever been before, and in my post-attack world I knew exactly what kind of feelings and violence I was capable of.

 

In the beginning, the writing was literally reconstructing the scene of violence just so that I could sort out the very disorienting flashes of what happened and reassemble them into a coherent story.

 

The violent part was the most interesting one in terms of memories starting as fragments and flashes and gradually becoming a whole again. Initially, it was almost like all the pieces were bits of glass that had been blasted out of a window. The parts were all familiar, but how they fit together was not certain. Each piece had its own “signature” that helped me to locate it in the “sequence,” but I didn’t remember the actual transitions sometimes and had to infer how the memories fit together due to certain elements in the memories being necessary before or after other things.

 

The biggest example of a sequence helping me reassemble the memory is the moment when I hit my attacker in the head and was at the same time hit in the head with his hammer. Because of the force of the blow to my head, I was totally unable to remember actually hitting him. I could never see any image in my memories that would correspond with that moment. I also could not recollect how it felt to throw that punch. I had incontrovertible evidence that I had hit him—one of the hairs on his head was lodged in a gash in my knuckle for days. The flashes of memory that I could see well following the punch that I threw could only make sense if the punch had been very hard. A very hard punch explained why he dropped the hammer, but I never “saw” that in any memory. The writing itself became a tool to figure out the sequence of events.

 

I read somewhere that a severe head injury like a hammer blow can sort of “short circuit” the brain and prevent it from recording memories the way it usually does. I recalled at least three very hard hits to my head, and if you count the hit when I blanked out, then there must have been four or more very hard hammer blows. I didn’t think to count the lumps on my head though that would have been an easy way to actually figure it out. (I think one of my friends counted the lumps, though, and there were more than what I remembered.)

 

Interestingly, the first time I ever went to an Asian American writers conference was not long after this attack. It was just several months later at Hunter College, where I’d been invited to read by dis-Orient journalzine.... This reading turned out to be a very great turning point for me in ways I never could have foreseen....

 

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[December 19, 2005]

Some digressions

 

What makes a writer a writer?

 

This late Monday afternoon (12/19/2005), as I was laying in bed sick with the sun fading, a voice in my head said: Get up and write. Then I got up and started writing. The voice has never said: Get up and start watching TV. It has never said, Get up and go shopping. On the other hand, when I was studying dance and music in my young beginnings, the voice would say: Get up and practice. So i have not been solely dedicated to writing alone; it has just been the thing that stuck and which worked better than anything else I ever did.

 

This line popped into my head a couple days ago: "Life in Asian America is nasty, brutish and short. But the bargains are amazing."

 

Maybe I can use it in a pantoum someday. I think I w as riding in the car around Tainan, and reflecting on how I feel a lot safer here. The irony is that I should not feel safer here where I am actually a minority in terms of nationality, language, culture etc. I am an American in East Asia, and I am illiterate and do not know how to get around or even how to ask where is the bathroom. But native Taiwanese will bend over backwards to be accommodating to me here as an American, especially as an American-born Chinese person. An "ABC"—I seem to enjoy great ease here because this society wants me to be comfortable here even if there may be some resentment and some curiosity and etc. Mostly, I think it is positive.

 

(I know there is some resentment of Americans in general, and part of this is due to the wonderful string of presidents that we have had since 1968 or so, like LBJ escalating the war in Vietnam based on a phony incident. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was totally faked? Ho hum. Remind you of anything?)

 

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a post-AWP debriefing

on a reading off the path

March 16, 2006

 

I was invited by Donna Weaver, editor of CakeTrain (http://www.caketrain.org/), to be part of a reading at AWP in Austin on March 10; this was a good break for me (as well as a much needed break from the AWP Bookfair, where I was representing Many Mountains Moving) as I knew several of the readers from NYU, and I wanted to support Donna in her courageous efforts to bring out the great and the fearless because there aren’t enough lit mags that are actually really exciting and beautifully done.

 

Though I was extremely sleep-deprived and surfeited with poetry readings and poets and writers of all cv-sizes and ego-ages, several things set this evening event apart. First, it was far from the corpocratic aura of the Convention Center, with its Bookfair in a Box Superstore that made you feel like an ant in a literary Walmart; the reading was past the supersized headshop and across the highway and another mile trek through desolate, dark streets (smarter poets in cabs passed me and my friends). Second, it was set in a little cafe with a nice outside courtyard-like performance space with little trees and strings of dim treelights; it was ideal for little live music acts. Third, there was free wine and food and desserts. Fourth, my friends, Erik Nilsen, John Mulrooney and Lidia Torres, came with me, and more of my old friends turned out there also, I learned later.

 

Before I’d left for the reading I was so tired I was zoning out in front of the hotel TV, which was playing Braveheart, which I’d seen before, but it had an extra added hour of commercials tossed in.

 

It didn’t bug me that the reading started late or that there was a signup sheet as in an open reading because there weren’t that many readers, and we were all told to read for seven minutes. And I signed up for the seventh spot. How long could it take?

 

Man, was I wrong! Everyone read over their time, and some went way over, except for one person (god bless her, i.e. Susan Brennan, and she was great). They even had to take a break before the sixth person. On the other hand, I know the poets were good, and some of them, including Kazim Ali, were really great. But I was starting to fall over (into sleep) even in the beautiful evening and great scene etc. Then they interjected a few people between Susan and me, without telling me. (Maybe they got their late. Who knows?)

 

Being a veteran of, okay, millions of readings, as a feature and as an audience member, I knew our generous audience was somewhat suffering as the readers were overtaxing the already overtaxed.

 

I decided then to stick to my script and stay in the time limit and just hit the high notes and leave. I tried hard to summon up some energy, did a few stretches in the shadows, said my prayers to the greatest poets I ever heard in my life, inhaled a half-cup of wine, jumped out to the mic, said thanks to Donna and her staff for doing so much for us, and said I’d read two poems.

 

I had my full concentration really on right away and just made sure I stayed focused on the words of “peace valley elementary school during the vietnam war.”

 

I admit that this poem contains mysteries for me, unexpected rises and falls, layers of innuendo that drop from taboos to something even more hidden. I was really hoping to feel what was in the poem with the help of this great audience because such an audience can act like a great magnifier of meaning, and this reflecting mirror can actually make a tangible impression on one in the midst of the act. But I was a little too trashed to feel that ethereal phenomenon. On the other hand, I could feel their full attention, and they laughed at the right spots and clapped sincerely when the first poem ended. The last poem I read was “she wanted to be…”, which was very brief and intense.

 

The louder applause afterwards told me that I’d made it really happen. I didn’t stand around in it though; I walked offstage almost straight into a beautiful tall woman who was sort of smiling at me, all aglow. Then one of my friends gave me a great hug, and I felt relieved to be done and free. I didn’t get a chance to talk to many people afterwards though because our cab had just come and the next wouldn’t appear for forty-five minutes. So we left immediately.

 

The next night, though, after the really big closing reading of famous poets, when I was hanging out with some friends, several of them told me they were there, too, at the CakeTrain reading and they really liked what I’d done up there.

 

It was hard to say goodbye to all that warm energy, especially in the midst of the arrival of thousands of South by Southwest (SXSW) fans from everywhere in the world jamming the streets and making Austin into a carnival with loud live music pouring out of restaurants everywhere, and everyone dressed for a sultry summer night, but I had a 6:30 a.m. plane back to the high plains of northern Colorado with all its ice, high wind warnings, red dust storms, cows, burning blood, stockyards and tumbleweeds.

 

I was too wired to sleep right away, so I turned on the hotel TV, and, swear to god, Braveheart was still going on due to the inordinant number of extra commercials. I got to see Mel Gibson get killed again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

web page created by Jeffrey Ethan Lee

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English Language and Literature

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