At the outset of “Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers” (September/October 2016), you declared: “It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them. The contours of some of America’s biggest issues...start to come into sharper focus, the collective discourse rises above the rhetoric of political pundits, and the pomp and circumstance of the political process falls away, so that we are left with a discussion of real problems, real concerns, and, if not solutions, then at least some honest ideas that may inspire action of real, lasting value.” Unfortunately, among many fine contributions that may indeed meet those high ideals, your feature includes some that represent “political grandstanding” at its worst; they evoke an anti-Israelist “collective discourse” composed of precisely the sort of distressingly familiar rhetoric that you claim the feature to be “rising above.” Far from “sharpening focus” or offering “honest ideas,” these paragraphs present what might most charitably be described as incomplete and highly arguable accounts of a long-standing conflict. What is inarguable, however, is that statements you chose to include—in particular, those from Ru Freeman, Emily Raboteau, and Naomi Shihab Nye—omit even the slightest sense of the matter’s complexity and history. (To his credit, a fourth author to address this subject, Tom Spanbauer, at least suggests that Palestine bears some responsibility for the ongoing difficulties.) That among all of the world’s nations and national groups your feature singles out for excoriation, more than once, only the planet’s sole Jewish state is distressing enough. That you’ve chosen to preface such anti-Israelist polemics with your laudatory introduction—rather than a more conventional statement clarifying that your contributors’ opinions are only their own—is profoundly disturbing to this longtime subscriber and past contributor.
New York, New York
“Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be....” I was interested to see what hopes my fellow writers would have, but that interest turned to annoyance as I read comments from writers who assumed Clinton would win. To whoever wins—and there are four candidates—I would say, “Care about us Americans. Care about our welfare as much as you care about your own. If our president and other elected officials did that, the country would be so much different.”
Constance Barr Corbett
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
Goddard, Not Gone
Thank you for Jeremiah Chamberlin’s “A Lifetime to Write: Warren Wilson and the Origins of the Low-Residency MFA” (September/October 2016). Given our association with Goddard College’s long-standing low-residency writing MFA, we appreciated its outline of this model’s many strengths. We enjoyed the coverage of Goddard as the locus of the model’s invention, but regretted that it left readers in the dark about what has happened at Goddard since Ellen Bryant Voigt and her original faculty relocated to Warren Wilson in 1980. It is no accident that Goddard, which originated the low-residency model as an innovative approach to adult undergraduate education, went on to re-create a flourishing and dynamic low-residency MFA. Goddard resumed offering the degree at the end of the 1980s, and the program saw spectacular growth throughout the following two decades. We welcome voices that are too often marginalized in American letters, with an emphasis on socially engaged writers. Students have the option to work in an impressive range of genres: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, young adult, dramatic writing, and the graphic novel. We recently initiated a partnership with the PEN Emerging Voices program, offering scholarships to writers from underserved communities. Our students are a highly successful bunch, with “success” defined not only in terms of high-profile publications, screen projects, and dramatic productions, but also association with radical community arts organizations and high-impact publishing ventures. Our faculty are diverse and fiercely productive, garnering recognition from Guggenheims to Fulbrights to Junior Library Guild selections. Furthermore, we are a unionized faculty—a rarity in the creative writing world and a crucial factor guaranteeing the centrality of faculty voice to the maintenance of our program’s academic integrity.
Elena Georgiou; Jan Clausen and Keenan Norris
Director; Faculty, MFA Program in Creative Writing at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont
Reading “Classroom as Community: Creating Safe Spaces in Creative Nonfiction Workshops” by Erika Anderson and Brian Gresko (September/October 2016), I was appalled at the idea of “a safe space” for writers and saddened to see yet another version of a now prevalent preconception that workshops should and must be that way. That I created the term creative nonfiction in the late 1950s provides a historical perspective for my concern. That no one ever complained of my workshops, in any genre, as being unsafe was the product of simple civility, never of proscription. I told my students that writers are risk takers and that they have never been safe, nor should they be. I told them that writers rejoice in being intrinsically myriad-minded, and that all human experience is their reservoir of raw material, subjects, and themes, and that readers knowingly and willingly read at their own risk. Originally, what I had in mind by the term creative nonfiction was a great variety of work that, compared with fiction, was objective but artistically wrought. It certainly included personal essays, but what I observe in the article is that it now means mostly works so personal that the writer does indeed risk hurtful comments from fellow writers, more so than offering personal experiences too thinly veiled in fiction. In time, the proliferation of safe spaces may, I fear, produce mostly safe works, narrowed in scope to the relatively few personal experiences available to the individual writer, until there is no crying need for workshops at all.
Black Mountain, North Carolina
Many Ways to Pay Attention
To suggest, as William Giraldi does in “Pay Attention” (September/October 2016), that a teenage boy filming a funeral with his phone is not really “looking” at the experience and has erected a “barrier between himself and the event,” is not only superior and condescending, it belies a knee-jerk fear of modernity much like that of Sven Birkerts. Giraldi arrogantly insists that the death of a loved one “won’t really have happened” to the boy, who thus can never become an “imaginative writer” like Giraldi. Wow! Since the inception of the digital age, Birkerts too has been pining for some lost world without mediated communication and the distraction of devices. But all our communication and experience is mediated, and we have always had distraction and devices, even long before the invention of the kind of written linear narrative favored by these memoirists. Together, Giraldi and Birkerts form an echo chamber of nostalgia.
“A New Center for Black Poetics” (September/October 2016) by Tara Jayakar incorrectly stated that before 2016 there was no center with significant institutional support specifically dedicated to studying the legacy of African American poetry. In fact, the Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994.