Paul Klee, Follow that Dream
If you're like us, you find yourself muttering "what's the point?" often these days. The rotten, soul-wrenching things we now all are, together, finally carrying are heavy beyond measure. Or so it seems, some days. For Bear Review founding Co-editor Brian Clifton, the way out is reassessment. Of writing, of everything. There's always work to do, and that's the point.
Co-editor, Bear Review
In the past few months,
my partner and I have discussed how do we continue to write, to make art when the world is on fire. We are both aware of the privilege implicit in this question. We are white, neuro-typical, financially secure, in a heterosexual relationship, and without immuno-compromising health conditions, so we have been allowed to turn away from all the ways the world has been on fire for a very long time for many. While it is difficult to admit, I basked in the privilege of being comfortable, of not asking difficult questions of myself, of not examining the consequences of my actions. 2020 has shown that this is no longer an option.
First, it was coronavirus, and the US’s lackadaisical response to keeping people safe. Then it was the continued torture of immigrants held in detention camps at the US border. Then it was people assaulting and threatening violence for being required to wear masks to slow a pandemic. Then it was the wave of brutality unleashed on protestors in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police (another name in a long and ever-growing list). Then it was the murder of Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells. Then it was the lynching of Robert Fuller being ruled a suicide. Then it was... Then it was...
Marcus and I started Bear Review as new MFA graduates. While I can’t speak for Marcus, I can say at this time and for a long time after I saw publication as the end goal of writing. When a poem or manuscript was published, it entered the public domain (with all the complications about who gets to participate in “the public domain”) and acted as communication between the author and some imagined reader. The poems that were published were the ones that communicated the most and to the most people. I feel embarrassed typing out my own naiveté.
As Phillip B. Williams’ open letter substantiates, people have biases (aesthetic, political, and otherwise), and these biases create power imbalances that lead, even with the best intentions, to corruption. I think it is also good to mention (if a little obvious to some) that in addition to the biases we have for those we know, who are members of our nebulous camps, there’s also ingrained biases. As I enter my last year at a PhD. program, I have started to realize how much of my education has skewed “my” aesthetics to be white, euro-centric, heterosexual, and often male—note the Norton Anthology’s spread of writers, note how often I had to read Eliot and Stevens and Frost and Williams, note how little time was given to unpacking the problematic moments of these writers. While I’ve tried to counteract this in my reading, it is difficult to erase, to unlearn completely the ways my aesthetics have been shaped and limited by white supremacy—a fact I am becoming more and more aware of.
I guess I’m writing this to say the idea that publishing is an act of communication is fraught, to say the least, with the erasure of all the ways communication is bent by power. When I started my PhD. program, it became obvious that I could no longer be an editor (as it required so much time and energy that I did not have). Stepping away from Bear Review was difficult, but it gave me time to reassess how poetry works. Teaching my first creative writing workshop also helped me understand how writing works. Seeing how writers respond (or not) to current events also helped me understand how writing works. This is all a long-winded way to get back to what started this Growler: how do we continue to write when the world is on fire?
For me, answering this question requires reassessing what writing does or should do. This reassessment began as I taught, and it has been reinvigorated by the first half of 2020. I think writing, for me, has become less an act of communicating with an external other and more an act of communicating with an internal one, and less about finding another who has similar biases to me and more about interrogating those biases within myself. Writing increasingly is becoming a way for me to observe the world around and inside me. It is both a way to work on myself, to note how I contribute to or combat the things I see wrong with the world as well as a way to model what that process might look like. This may come as a surprise to those who have read anything I’ve written or to people I’ve talked with about my favorite poets and poems. And it’s true—what I mainly write (and read) are poems that are surreal and abject (I often make the joke that if I don’t know how to end a poem I’ll just have my speaker vomit snakes), and they focus on the small and individual—a person watching their neighbor load hunting gear into a truck, a painting of flowers, an accident on the highway. The world is flooded with these types of poems.
Certainly, my reassessment of what writing does has not really changed the type of poem I write. It has, however, changed my approach to both writing and reading. When I read, while I am dazzled by how poets use imagery and language to delineate not only thought but how thoughts coalesce in the mind, I am also communicating with myself—am I compelled by such and such move and why? In what ways does poem X complicate how I have conceptualized how to read up to this point? How does my inability to “access” the poem reflect my own shortcomings as a reader, thinker, and person? And maybe this is why art is important during times of heightened crisis. It gives a space to interrogate the self without (many) repercussions. And maybe this is a practice that everyone needs to engage in one way or the other—assessing themselves as a witness to and participant within the world around them.
When I write, especially in the past few months, I am becoming increasingly more excited about the process of observing something than in the final product of writing. It seems almost cliché to say this, but conceptualizing poetry as discovery, or poetry as the self learning to understand the self in its many permutations, has been a far more rewarding endeavor than constantly struggling to write “publishable” poems or to enter competitions. And while this approach does not necessarily lead to poems that are good, it leads to something else: the ability to look at my own shortcomings (and there are many) without feeling the need to become defensive or to be overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Being a person who is coming to understand the self reframes the practice of being better from a pseudo-graded assignment in which I pass or fail; and there is nothing else to be done unto a journey, a hard journey, but one that is continuous and can either be tackled in bursts or through steady progress.
I guess that’s how we can continue to write, to make art, or that’s at least how I can continue to do this. By understanding creation as a form of radical presence, of interrogating my own presence (and participation) in this burning world, I can know which way leads me to new places and which way leads me back into ash.
— Brian Clifton
Brian Clifton is a founding editor of Bear Review.