I’m a sucker for cheap magazine introductory offers. Don’t ask why. Some dimensions of our inner lives ought to remain unexplored. But it is how I wound up with a subscription to Poets & Writers.
You know, the magazine cover that vacillates between close-ups of writers affecting vulnerable yet distracted looks, and an eye-singeing red announcing “WINNING CONTESTS: MORE THAN 100 TO ENTER NOW.” Maybe you’ve seen it in a bookstore. Maybe you avoided it.
Anyhow, like most of my ideas, it sounded good at the time. I assure you I was not drunk when I returned the little postcard for a one-year subscription at $9.95. Even at 80 percent advertising it seemed a bargain. That’s an exaggeration. At best, it wasn’t a mistake.
Or so I thought. The May/June issue arrived with the usual lineup of writing prompts, advice, and author interviews. Like something out of Marvel Comics’ uber-unsuccessful DiversityVerse, the headliners are women, minorities, and underrepresented voices. No problem. Until I start reading. If it were Weird Tales or Amazing Stories I would sit back and enjoy myself. But it isn’t. It is something closer to true crime.
In the News and Trends section, Sarah Seltzer issues a call to arms. Or pens. Entitled “Writers, Editors Resist,” she explores the deeply troubling question of how writers can possibly write during a Donald Trump presidency. By resisting, of course! The Federalist readers are well acquainted with the hilariously self-declared Resistance. Somehow, after the November election, the sky fell and Chicken Little survives to bash our heads about it.
Like most conservatives, I cannot turn on the television, open a newspaper, read a magazine, or “consume” (what are we, cybervores?) Internet media without learning about another March for _____, Hollywood stars denouncing fascist Trumpers, and Hillary Clinton sightings. Progressive politicization of bedrooms and bathrooms is nothing new. Nor is it new in the literary world. But the pathetic fragility of writers shouting hysterically to the rest of the planet that nebulous resistance is the way forward is something recent.
Is This Fiction or Non-Fiction?
Seltzer quotes fiction writer Paula Whyman describing the morning-after pill many people had to swallow following Clinton’s defeat. Whyman said, “I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working. Does it really matter now?” Luckily we don’t have to wait to find out. Seltzer informs us that Whyman launched a new international online journal “intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear.”
Yep. Not because of Bashar Assad in Syria, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Vladimir Putin in Russia. But because of Trump in America. Whyman and her journal co-founders even went beyond the page to gather in the lobby of Trump International Hotel in Washington DC to read aloud selections from Emma Lazarus, Claudia Rankine, and James Baldwin.
Whyman wants to help writers “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” Perhaps it is weird fiction after all. The monstrous and orange-faced Donald J. Trump running around stealing writers’ humanity.
For those struggling to write something worthy of the Resistance, Poets & Writers offers a writing prompt exercise in the appropriately titled section “The Time Is Now.” The prompt is a riff on Major Jackson’s Harvard Review project called “Renga for Obama.” It uses a traditional Japanese collaborative form for the purpose of “creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency.” This not a drill. It’s for real. Actually, it’s a real drill.
In The Literary Life section, Laura Maylene Walter wants to help writers overcome insecurity (especially hacks like me struggling with the Obama Renga prompt). Her essay is titled “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest For Reassurance.” Walter quotes Katie Naymon, a master of fine arts candidate at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro: “I would have second-guessed applying to MFA programs if someone down the line hadn’t told me I’m good.”
Now, I am not knocking encouragement. My wife is devoted to my writing career. It is a lonely devotion, to be sure. But my experience with editors is less reassuring. It’s not that I am ungrateful. In fact, it’s precisely because I haven’t gotten much professional reassurance that I never bothered with MFA programs. For that, I am eternally grateful. Walter wants writers to know that “you have permission to do this. We all have permission to try.” Great. Thanks.
Now That You’ve Given Me Permission
There is no shortage of writing opportunities in Poets & Writers that one has permission to try. In this issue, there are pages and pages of information on writing conferences, retreats, workshops, MFA programs, and competitions. As I skimmed the various sales pitches (what my old man calls the bait and switch), it occurred to me that if I am to be a successful writer, I may need write to less and talk about writing more. So many opportunities to talk shop with other writers exist that I just might become a famous writer without having written much of anything.
In truth, I never gave a thought to attending a conference, workshop, or retreat. I’m too busy writing. That’s not true. I did go to a writer’s conference once. When I was in second grade, I wrote a book for the Young Authors competition called “Nice Teachers.” Beautifully bound in scrap wallpaper and slathered with paste, it was a blatant attempt to win by flattery. It worked. Almost. I received an honorable mention and got shipped off to a neighboring school district for the day with other young authors to eat Happy Meals and read our books to each other. I can’t see Yaddo or Interlochen beating that experience.
The high point of this issue is “The Other Side Of Burning,” an interview with Lidia Yuknavitch, author of recently published “The Book of Joan.” Unsurprisingly, it is billed as a dystopian novel of the “not-so-distant future, where the earth has been ravaged by war, a dictator threatens to destroy what’s left, and humanity’s best hope for survival is a reimagined Joan of Arc” (vagina hats optional).
In the cover photo, the wily, smiling writer sits comfortably on a plush red couch, with red boots, near a red wall, holding a volume she obviously isn’t reading. Yuknavitch is backed by a wall of books and surrounded by curiosities from her travels or the thrift shop. The interviewer asks if Yuknavitch’s book were written now, after the presidential election, would it be different?
The author said yes, admitting she would probably screw it up. It would “also have made the book more polemical.” Why, you ask? Because “I think about myself nowadays, and on Facebook I can’t keep my mouth shut. Every moment of the day I feel a rage…” The interview continues much the same, with Yuknavitch describing Joan of Arc as her “first fantasy” and “my first sexual understanding of my body,” and licking Joan of Arc’s statues in France and comparing the poor saint to Hillary Clinton and so on.
As a writer, I wondered what books informed the mind that created “The Book of Joan.” I took a very close look at the books behind her in the cover photo. “Pussy King of the Pirates,” “The Anarchist Cookbook,” “We Did Porn,” and “The Letters of Sigmund Freud.” And there you have it, folks. Perhaps this is a dimension of her inner life we should leave unexplored.
As for me, I can’t wait for the next issue. Until then, I’ll just keep writing and resisting the resistance. One piece at a time.