The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Notes on RISK and Writing

Kunst machen ist ein Risiko, war immer eins und wird es bleiben.  [Creating art is a risk, it's always been one and will remain so.] 
            —Heinrich Böll


Today, Böll's statement is still true, but only for a rare number of artists and writers.  The very concept of RISK in art and writing seems to have become a threatening one for most artists and writers.  Indeed, after a decade of futile attempts to explain the concept, I've come to the conclusion that those who never RISK will likely (and conveniently) not be able to comprehend the concept, which is as old as the Athenian democracy.  French philosopher Michel Foucault, who presented six lectures at the University of California at Berkeley (October-November 1983) called "Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia," noted "parrhesia" appeared for the first time in Greek literature in Euripides [c.484-407 BC], and occurred throughout the ancient Greek world of letters from the end of the Fifth Century BC, then in the patristic texts written at the end of the Fourth and during the Fifth Century AD, dozens of times, for instance, in Jean Chrisostome [AD 345-407].  "Parrhesia" was ordinarily translated into English as "free speech" (in French as "franc-parler", and in German as "Freimüthigkeit"). The parrhesiastes is the one who uses parrhesia, i.e., is the one who speaks the truth. 

Speaking the truth in America often carries with it a certain degree of RISK.  Writers should be aware of other possibilities and sources for creativity, including RISK.  The editor's various and purposeful contacts with 100s of professors of Writing sadly, however, confirm that almost everyone of them would prefer not exposing their students to the RISK option.  Most would never consider inviting me to one of their classes to discuss the concept with their students, and I have offered my time to many of them.  To date only one instructor has invited me, Dr. Dan Sklar (Endicott College) and has continued to do so over the past several years.  Evidently, Dr. Sklar is a rare individual, far more concerned with student education, than with self.     

When at the Festival International de la Poésie a Trois-Rivieres in 2001 as one of 150 well-remunerated invited poets, a young man congratulated me after one of my readings, then asked if I'd read several of his poems to see what I thought.  From that, I ended up writing the following French poem.  Its English translation follows. 


La poésie : leçon première

Nous avons besoin de toutes les idées qui nous sera possible d’inventer ou de transmettre.
            —Pierre Vadeboncoeur, « La Ligne du risque »

« Le risque, c’est ben ça, »
je dis complètement bourré
à ce jeunot qui m’a vu,
Monsieur Poète Invité,
ayant officiellement lu
à la soirée très officielle.
Lui s’était approché de moi,
m’avait félicité, puis m’avait flashé
son petit paquet de textes
déjà vus, lus et bien entendus.
Je ne savais pas quoi lui dire au juste
dans ce bar appelé Le Zénob
dans cette ville autoproclamée
capitale mondiale de la poésie,
car ses vers étaient tristement clichés
…et moi qui éprouve tant de difficultés
de baratiner et autrement bluffer.

« Le risque », donc je lui dis, « si ton poème
ne risque rien… c’est un poème sans risque. »

[Poetry:  First Lesson
We need all the ideas possible to invent or transmit. 
            —Pierre Vadeboncoeur, La Ligne du risque

“Risk, that’s what it is,”
I said quite shit-faced
to a young guy who’d watched me,
Mister Poet, reading officially
one evening at the international festivity.
He’d approached me,
congratulated me, then immediately
slipped out his little folder of
ready-made, déjà vu poesy.
I didn’t quite know what to say
in that barroom called Le Zénob
in the town self-proclaimed
“World Capital of Poetry”
because his verse was sadly cliché
…bullshitting was hardly my forté.

“Risk,” I said to him, “if your poem
doesn’t risk anything… it’s a poem without risk.”]

What then I argue in the poem is not that a poem of RISK is necessarily better but that it is different and should at least be included as a creative- writing possibility.  What I did prior to attending the Festival was consciously think, then write, what in my heart I knew I shouldn't read at the Festival.  After all, the bridges that we do not burn represent, in essence, the very truths we stifle.  It has become my belief that a poet should be, above all else, a parrhesiastes.  "Je suis certain que chaque cinéaste, intellectuel, écrivain, sait très bien de quoi ne pas parler s'il veut survivre," wrote Pierre Falardeau, Quebec film director and hardcore polemicist.  Allow me to translate:  "I am certain that every director, intellectual, writer, knows very well what he should not talk about if he wants to survive."  And indeed, perhaps we all ought to contemplate those taboos and even more important break them now and then.  Should not that be the true metier of a poet?  One might be surprised by the flow of creative juice that such rupture might provoke.  In any case, at the Festival I read poems highly critical of the organizers and invited poets in front of them and became, as one poet told me, "la découverte du Festival."  Out of 150 invited poets, paid $800 plus a free motel room for 10 days, I was the only one who dared criticize the hand that fed.  Call me a fool, if you like.  But what I really was was a poet... and that felt really good.  Of course, I was eventually ostracized, the local press wouldn't cover my story, and I was never to be again invited to Trois-Rivieres, and not one of those 150 invited poets would protest with that regard.     

What I ended up creating in 1998, as a direct result of my experience at a highly corrupt academic institution (Fitchburg State College) was The American Dissident, a journal devoted to literature, democracy, and dissidence, which encourages submissions that RISK something on the part of the submitting poet or writer.  In essence, the journal, which seeks engaged writing, stands at direct antipodes to most literary journals, which tend to seek writing of an "art for artsaking" nature, as Orwell termed it.  "In cultured circles art for artsaking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless.  Literature was to consist solely of the manipulation of words."  Sadly, almost never do I receive such submissions.  Now and then, I receive work from academics critical of anything but what is close to home and risky.  I respond, requesting they send something critical about their own institution and almost never do I receive a response. 

Thus, as mentioned, rarely do I ever as publisher receive poetry and essays that RISK anything at all on the part of the writer.  Few famous writers ever dared RISK in their writing.  Those who did suffered the consequences for it.  The following are certainly worth noting.  Others likely exist.

François Villon spent time in a 15th century dungeon and was nearly hung for his incessant attacks on the Parisian clergy.
García Lorca was executed for his writing.
Osip Mandelstam died in transit from a Soviet gulag for his poem "The Stalin Epigram."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn risked his life and was forced into exile for his Gulag Archipelago.
Kenule Saro-Wiwa, for his continual criticism of the Nigerian government, was executed by hanging.
Pablo Neruda was forced into exile for his criticism of the government.
Raúl Rivero spent time in a Cuban prison for his poetry and criticism of the Cuban government.   
Finally, many degrees exist regarding RISK.  As editor, I am not asking writers to RISK their lives or even job by speaking truth, but rather the ire of the literary milieu, for example, or momentary ostracizing by their colleagues, loss of reading invitations, loss of grant prospects, loss of sabbaticals, or loss of publication possibilities.  Orwell stated "Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought."  Imagine all the academic writers who dare not RISK offending anyone or anything.  Imagine what crippling effect that must have upon their minds!  The following is a list of just a few of the many examples of RISK (see link or below for those examples) I've taken over the years.  My career as a college professor has definitely suffered.  Indeed, I've reached the point where I can no longer provide the three letters of recommendation necessary for employment.  I am unemployed today. I've burned many bridges in the literary milieu.  But my writing is authentic and my sense of integrity remains ever intact.  Those who choose to be blind to the concept of RISK will unoriginally denigrate the following examples. 

1.  Created The American Dissident and this website.  RISK = future employment in higher education.
2.  Sent an essay critical of the NEA to the NEA.  RISK = thousands of dollars in future grant money.
3.  Sent a poem critical of Pedestal editor to that editor.  RISK = publication in Pedestal and money Pedestal pays for publication. 
4.  Published essays, poems, and cartoons in the student newspaper of Grambling State University when employed at that university.  RISK = job, future jobs, letters of recommendation.
5.  Published essays, poems, and cartoons in the student newspaper of Bennett College when employed at that college.  RISK = job, future jobs, letters of recommendation. 
6.  Distributed a broadside at the Concord Poetry Center.  RISK = ostracizing by poets and elimination of the possibility to teach a workshop at CPC.
7.  Distributed broadsides at the public library.  RISK = subscription (the library is a subscriber).  
8.  Published a critical watercolor as front cover of issue #17 on the Concord Cultural Council, which was also displayed in a Concord Free Public Library exhibit. RISK = public grant monies.
9.  Displayed a critical watercolor on the Shop at Walden boutique as part of my Concord Free Public Library exhibit. RISK = stocking of The AD at the Shop.
10. Displayed a critical watercolor of the Town Manager and president of the Concord Chamber of Commerce.  RISK = cancellation of the exhibit. 

The following are a few examples from the many I've created that contain an element of RISK. 

Poem #2 for the Edification of Lit Cogs

An editor wrote that my “general frustration with
some of the ‘norms’ and ‘protocols’ of the literary
world were well-founded and needed
to be expressed”* and
that he was “really drawn” to my writing. 
“I must say.  I actually agree with a lot
of what
you say.” 
Three months later I wrote him a reminder, asking
if he were still drawn to what I had to say and would
consider publishing something of what I had to say.
But in an unsurprising about face, he responded
“I'm not wanting to out and out burn bridges because,
well we’re a writer-friendly publication.”

Yet how, I wondered, had the prime concern of
literary publishers, apart from excellence—
oh, but of course!—
become apprehension of burning bridges, while
“writer friendly” equated with truth avoidance?
Had the Janus-faced politician turned role model? 

“But I do want to take on (more) controversial issues,
and I do want to give voice to ‘unpopular’ views,”
he proudly declared, as if fence straddling had been
elevated to one of the fine arts.
“Some degree of prudence is needed, but not to the
point of sacrificing authenticity and fairness.”

Would he, I wondered, be presenting himself one day
as candidate for the Congress or Senate? 

*John Amen, Chief Editor of Pedestal Magazine


Welcome to the Poetry Center of Concord

(On the Specious Nature of the Successfully-Adapted Species of the Bourgeois Poet)
Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine—Henry David Thoreau
Go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The poets we invite to our center are famous indeed,
of “average thoughts and manners,—not originality,
not even absolute excellence.”1
They don’t make waves, they just make money.
They’ve adjusted their sense of social outrage
inversely to the size of their cachet.2
They never go against the grain, they are the grain.
They’d certainly never rock the boat either, for to do so
would perturb their vision of retirement and pension.
Oh, “how easily we capitulate to badges and names!”3

We are poets of the established order, award-winning,  
never questioning and challenging
those lovely, officious hands throwing crumbs our way.
We are gregarious and contented, courtesans
of the Chamber of Commerce,
bowing and curtseying before pillars of the community.

While we value freedom of expression, it mustn’t ever
perturb the comfort and sanctity of our circle of poetry.
We praise freedom of speech too, but will readily censor
those uttering statements
offensive to our fragile sense of civility.

Enfin, we believe in vigorous debate
but only as long as it’s not about us.
While we expect certain topics may lead to contention,
we will certainly not prevent users from expressing
their opinion,
as long as articulated—as we see it—in a rational,
calm, and informed manner… oh, but of course!

While our mission is to make the community love our verse,
“We welcome dissidents!
All the best poets were dissidents.”4
Just the same, we’d never invite a poet from our town
to read protest poetry if, in fact, he’d have the audacity,
at our center, to protest poetry.5

1 Thoreau.  “After lecturing twice I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, i.e. to interest my audiences… I feel that the public demand an average man,—average thoughts and manners,—not originality, not even absolute excellence.  You cannot interest them except as you are like them and sympathize with them.
2Pierre Falardeau, Quebec film director, wrote « Putes de bas étage, poules de luxe, putes à la petite semaine, putes d’occasion, putes de grand chemin.  Ils ont ajusté leur morale à l’épaisseur de leur portefeuille.  Ce sont des artisses.  Ils passent du statut de quêteux à celui de pute. » [Low-class whores, high-class whores, part-time whores, second-hand whores, professional whores.  They’ve adjusted their ethics in accord with the thickness of their wallets. These are the artists.  They’ve graduated from the stature of beggar to that of whore.]
3 Emerson
4 Joan Houlihan, founder and leader of the Concord Poetry Center
5 Joan Houlihan wrote “The idea of your teaching a workshop or delivering a lecture on the art of literary protest or poetry protest, or simply protest (Concord is where it all started!) occurred to me even before you mentioned it […] However, I must say I don’t favor having you teach at the center if you protest the reading.” 


Laurels for the Liberal

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
—American Library Association, “Library Bill of Rights”

When they reach a certain point—those
poets and professors
—a point of established-order approval
with accolades and literary prizes,
honorary titles, illustrious publications,
and emeritus positions,
rise they do to the rank
of revered cogs of the “machine,”
the one Thoreau so detested and
eschewed for its intrinsic corruption
—rather “let your life be a counterfriction
to stop the machine”!
—when they reach that point, they
no longer really give a damn about
democracy, free speech, and the
importance of questioning and challenging
all institutions and icons. 

“Poetry,” had said the self-professed
anti-authority poet,* “should be passionate
and outrageous and political
and most of all revolutionary.”

Yet he’d been chosen State Laureate by
politicians and sycophant literati;
he’d been designated safe entity
by the corporate-friendly poet community
proclaiming him distinguished poet
in residence,
while ordaining him Chancellor
of the established-order Academy! 

“I am a radical,” he’d blathered,
“although as I get older sometimes,
I get too soft and am just a liberal.” 

But greed for posterity, thirst for high-brow
respect requisitely Faustian pacted
—a blind eye in exchange for renown—
sucks, no matter what the piteous excuse.
Revolutions will always prove hollow
citizens of that ilk publicly proclaim them!

So, no wonder I thought,
the Friends of the Concord
Free Public Library
had paid him to read verse, for his would likely
not perturb, provoke, or otherwise offend
any of the comfy souls seated before him,
basking in “liberal” stupor. 
*Gerald Stern is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, which censored my ideas from its literary agora in July 2007.  Rather than vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, it and its members prefer highly-subjective, free-speech-limiting rules of participation, enabling it and them to censor at will ideas they choose to deem “inflammatory, hateful, and insulting” or not sufficiently “rational, calm, and informed.”  Indeed, this very poem would likely be deemed thusly, for anything questioning and challenging the Academy or any of its poet icons and chancellors would likely be banned in accord with those nebulous terms.  Libraries across the country support the Academy’s National Poetry Month… and also its censorship of valid criticism.  That’s why I stand out here tonight in the cold darkness, distributing this broadside.  Do you too believe that “good taste” and subjectively-determined “manners” should always take precedence over truth, vigorous debate, and free speech?  Do you think librarians should “challenge censorship” in accord with the American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights,” or simply be agents of censorship, as many seem to have become today?  If you are not a partisan of censorship, why not send a protest to the Academy and Friends of the Concord Free Public Library?