Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The More Things Change

In 1968, the year I was born, Ronald Reagan was considered too extreme to be the Republican nominee for the presidency. Richard Nixon was the nominee and served a term and a half before resigning under threat of impeachment.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency and subsequently became a god in conservative circles, even though his policies mostly didn’t match the rhetoric. I imagine that if Republican politicians with Reagan’s history ran for national office today, they wouldn’t make it to the Iowa caucus, much less into office. The moderate Republican with a national following seems to be extinct today. That doesn’t stop every national Republican from doing obeisance at the altar of St. Ronnie of Reagan–indeed, such a pilgrimage is a necessary part of any journey to Republican acceptability.

In 2010, the Tea Party, made up mostly of culture-warrior Republicans, stands poised to pick up seats in the House of Representatives and give control to the Republican party as a whole. In their rhetoric, they are more extreme than the 1964 version of Ronald Reagan. They and the Republican House leadership promise that there will be no compromise with the Democratic party, and they make claims that their freedoms are under attack, although they never provide specific examples of how this is happening. Continue reading

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How elite am I?

Claire Berlinski over at Ricochet responded to Charles Murray’s inane piece (but I repeat myself) in the Washington Post about elitism and the Tea Party, pointing out the obvious problems with his reasoning.

But the fun thing she did is take Murray’s claims and turn them into a handy little quiz to test your level of elitism (or plebianism). Let’s see how I’d do.

1. Can you talk about “Mad Men?” Not this season, but past seasons, yes.

2. Can you talk about the “The Sopranos?” I can’t. I never got into it. But The Wire? We’ll go all night on that one.

3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right?” Drew Carey, right? But I haven’t watched him as host.

4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? Not in years

5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? Nope.

5. How about pilates? Not really sure what this is

5. How about skiing? Think I missed my window with this one. I’d probably tear off the lower half of my body if I tried to take it up now.

6. Mountain biking? My bike is mountain-bike-adjacent–looks like a mountain bike, but is far too heavy to actually go on mountains with it. Besides, when I go to nature, I like to wander through it at a pace where I can actually see it.

7. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? He’s a NASCAR driver and has been champion multiple times. He’s dominated the sport in recent years. I don’t watch anymore, but I used to follow it pretty closely.

8. Does the acronym MMA mean nothing to you? I don’t watch it, but I know what it is, and if pressed could probably name five fighters

9. Can you talk about books endlessly? Endlessly? Probably not, but I can hold my own, depending on the crowd.

10. Have you ever read a “Left Behind” novel? No, but I have read novels in the genre, though not for a long time.

11. How about a Harlequin romance? Not in a really long time, but I have.

12. Do you take interesting vacations? Not in recent years, but I have in the past and would like to again soon.

13. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? Not so much in the Sierra Nevada, but I’ve done some good hiking in the Sangre de Cristo

14. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? Where’s my bookmark for Google Maps again?

15. Would you be caught dead in an RV? I’ve spent some time in one before, but I generally prefer to camp in a tent

16. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? If I could afford to be on one, you bet your ass.

17. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? Yes. I even know Yakov Smirnoff has a theater there

18. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? No.

19. How about the Rotary Club? Nope

20. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? Grew up in a number of them, and lived as an adult in them until I went to grad school (assuming Fayetteville AR doesn’t count as small).

21. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? I’m going to make some assumptions here, since I don’t know my neighbors very well, but given the neighborhoods I’ve lived in as an adult, I’d say the chances are I’ve lived more in those places than not.

22. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? I’ve been in that situation multiple times in my life.

23. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? Yes.

24. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yes

25. Have you worked on one? yes

So–do I qualify as elite? I have no idea. I’m a poet with a terminal degree in the fine arts who held a fellowship at a prestigious west coast university. I teach creative writing and literature full-time. I’m a political liberal. And yet I grew up as an evangelical Christian, spent years dirt poor (and am only barely middle-class now), and worked physical blue-collar jobs as recently as 5 1/2 years ago. Can you pigeonhole me, Mr. Murray?

October 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hey now, don’t blame us!

Let me begin by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment Alexander McCall Smith puts forward in his Wall Street Journal piece today. Overwriting drives me nuts, and it’s something I actively discourage in my composition, literature and creative writing classes. I even break out a study by Daniel M. Oppenheimer titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” * for my students every semester in hopes that they’ll stop overwriting. (It’s a fascinating study, by the way, and I’ve discovered that my students respond more to that than they do to my constant notes.)

I don’t think creative writing classes are what’s causing this problem with overwriting, though. I say this because most of the overwriting I see comes from people who’ve never taken a creative writing class. Overwriting generally stems, I think, from insecurity. It’s a natural reaction to concern over criticism of one’s ideas. It’s ass-covering, a way to hide rhetorical weakness beneath a padding of fluffy language. And it provides a ready-made response to critics in the form of “well, I guess my language is just too complex for your mediocre minds to comprehend. Nyaah.”

But I can understand why Smith would point at creative writing classes. He’s probably responding to the kind of writing B R Myers called “the cult of the sentence,”, and if he is, then I’m with him. Not that I dislike long, complex sentences in general–I love reading Faulkner, for example–but when I read fiction, I’m not reading primarily for sentences. I’m reading for story. If long, complex sentences further the story, then great. If long, complex sentences seem to be there to make me marvel at their length and complexity and beauty, then I’m not wowed by them. How can I tell the difference? I can’t, really. It’s a matter of personal perception. I just know that I get lost in Faulkner and get tired in Cormac McCarthy.

I’m not a fiction writer, and I read remarkably little contemporary fiction for someone in my position–truth is I don’t have time for it. I read a lot of poetry and I don’t even keep up with that. So maybe Smith has a point about overwriting, that it can be traced back to creative writing classes. I have my doubts, if only because overwriting is so common outside the world of literature. Or maybe we’re talking about two different kinds of overwriting. I’ve gotten a bit tangled up here, I have to admit. Not concise. Not good.

* If I could ban a single word from the English language, I’d be very tempted to get rid of “utilize.” I’m sure there are cases where utilize is more appropriate than use, but I haven’t seen them. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

October 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“A dark horse among dark horses”

I’ve wanted to write this post for days now, but I’ve been too swamped with other work to even think about it. I’m still not caught up, but I just finished a truckload and dammit, I’m going to blog before I start on the next one.

The title of this post comes from Seth Abramson’s list of 25 most underrated MFA programs (which I talked a little about here). It’s his description of the program at Florida Atlantic University, which is where I work (tho not on the MFA faculty), and the response from most people, so far as I can tell, was one of quizzical bemusement, as in “what the hell does that even mean?”

Amy, my partner, suggested that Seth probably just didn’t know anything about the program but saw that we fund nearly everyone who gets in, and that’s important in his ranking system. It’s important in my ranking system as well, as I think any MFA program that doesn’t fund its students is a sucker’s game.

But allow me to spin the program a bit, or at least talk it up some. Here’s some of what FAU has to offer in terms of its MFA.

Location: FAU is in Boca Raton Florida, which probably doesn’t strike you as an exciting place to live. That’s because it isn’t. It’s expensive and the people are largely old and grumpy. But the cities that surround Boca have an underrated cool. If you go north, you can live in Delray, which has a cool little arts scene and some good bars. Same if you go south. Pompano Beach is cheap and has one of the best beer gardens anywhere, and if you come all the way south to Fort Lauderdale (only 20 minutes away from campus) you get another arts scene. Plus you’re close to beaches no matter how far west you go, because the Everglades pretty much limit you. Winter is (usually) the three weeks it gets down to fifty and everyone pulls their jackets out of storage.

Department: This is a great place to work and teach, and it’s getting better. I’ve been here five years, and the quality of student has only gone up. It’s a combination of rising standards and freezes on growth at the flagship universities in the state thanks to the shaky economy. But what’s bad for them has been good for us, at least in terms of the kinds of students we’ve gotten.

And our students all come from a wide range of backgrounds. You want a diverse group of students? You’ll get them here, whether you’re talking about gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, you name it.

The program has undergone a bit of expansion of late as well. New hires in Creative Nonfiction and Translation have added to the diversity of a program that already has solid faculty members in both Poetry and Fiction. Here’s one of those faculty members.

So what does it all add up to? I like it here, even if I’m not among the MFA faculty. There’s potential here, which is why I agree with the dark horse moniker. (Amy suggested t-shirts with eyeballs on the front and the words “dark horse” on the back for the members of the program. My only problem is that I’d want one too.) And there’s good stuff to be had outside the program, which I think is important. One of the things I regret a little about my time in my MFA is that I didn’t explore the surrounding world enough. I went on a few hikes and a couple of canoe trips, but I didn’t do enough to really enjoy northwest Arkansas. Here, there’s all sorts of cool stuff waiting for you.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not a Good Idea

A couple of friends of mine pointed me to this post about a plan from Warner Brothers to bring back Pépé le Pew in 3-D, voiced by Mike Myers, in one of those CG-laden crapfests. The AV Club says this, in part:

Pepé Le Pew, occasionally characterized by people who take these things too seriously as a racist caricature of a smelly French person, will once again work his date-rape-y wiles on Penelope Pussycat, with the two being the only computer animated members of a an otherwise live-action cast.

I hope that the AV Club is being a little tongue-in-cheek with that “take these things too seriously” bit because my first thought when I heard of this project was “boys learning that it’s okay to paw and stalk a a girl because you really really like her is just what we need, especially if we tell them it’s cute if you do it in an outrageous French accent.” no, we really don’t need that. We already send boys mixed signals about what’s appropriate conduct around those they find attractive–the last thing we need is a cartoon skunk doing some version of “do I make you horny baby?” My only real question will be what’s more likely to make the audience vomit–the story or the 3-D?

I can understand Warner Brothers’ desire to update their cartoon characters for a young audience. I really do. That’s just free money laying out there–parents my age and a little younger will be willing to drop a few bucks in order to see the cartoons they grew up with. Hell, I went to see Space Jam. In the theater, I might add.

But sometimes you have to acknowledge that the characters you created decades ago aren’t appropriate anymore. Disney has disappeared The Song of the South, and a large number of the early Tom and Jerry cartoons have been heavily edited to remove racist scenes. Pepé le Pew was a character created at a time when few people took sexual harassment seriously (outside those people being harassed, at least), and he’s a one-note joke. There’s no way to bring him back and tame him so his conduct would be anything near appropriate for a contemporary audience.

Besides, it’s not like Pepé was ever a front-line star. You’ve got Bugs and Daffy and Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Marvin the Martian and maybe even Foghorn Leghorn (I’d have to think on him a bit, and maybe watch those cartoons again to be sure). And what’s more, you’ve got the opportunity to create and integrate new characters into the universe. Hell, bring back the Animaniacs and the rest of that crew while you’re at it.

But not the Tiny Toons. Screw those guys.

Just put Pepé back in the vault with Speedy Gonzales and Slowpoke Rodriguez and let their memories fade. We don’t need them now, except as relics. Let the scholars have them for study and deconstruction.

Update: When I posted this to my Facebook page, some friends of mine from high school and college said they thought I’d over-thought this a bit, that we’d all grown up with this stuff and had managed to become not horrible people, so maybe the cartoons didn’t have that large an effect on us. And it would be easy to look at who I am now and come to the same conclusion.

But the truth is that when I was a kid, and even when I was a young adult, I was a pretty shitty person, and part of that, I think, came from being surrounded by humor that played on stereotypes. My dad was a huge proponent of the idea that people should be willing to be laughed at no matter the situation, and he used his own condition to prove it. He’s had polio as a child, and had a crippled left arm, which meant he’d grown up as the butt of jokes and bullies. I got glasses in kindergarten, had asthma, and was a smart-alecky nerd with no off switch for my mouth, which meant I was subjected to the same treatment, and I dealt with the bullying the same way, which translated into, as I got older, “I can take it, so you can too.” Like I said, I was a shitty kid.

And I was a shitty adult for a long while too, in part because no one really challenged me to look at my conduct from another’s point of view. Truth be told, I still look at myself as a work in progress, though I’m a lot more sensitive to racism and sexism than I ever was even in my early 30’s. But I wonder how much of my inability to recognize casual racism and sexism came from the entertainment I was surrounded by–the stereotypes and the insult humor, just to name two examples.

Obviously I can never know for certain, but the more I think about it, the more I lean toward the idea that I was at the very least being told that it was okay to be callous toward the feelings of other people, and that even if I didn’t mind being ribbed, my experience wasn’t necessarily universal. It’s taken me until my forties to even consider it. Kids don’t think these things through at all.

October 7, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The MFA is not the problem…

It’s also not the solution, and I’m not sure there’s a problem in the first place.

It seems to me that in nearly every generation of writing, one group of people is convinced that no one has ever done it as well as they are doing it right now, while another group is convinced that it’s all dead, sucks, or is having the life sucked out of it by some outside force. Obviously, I think both of these positions are ludicrous.

The latest form of this debate, it seems to me, surrounds the Creative Writing MFA program. I’m a graduate of the one at the University of Arkansas, though I finished 3 7 years ago (I have the math skills of a poet) and the poetry side has changed considerably in the intervening years (for the good, as I understand). But just because I was in one doesn’t mean I’m a knee-jerk apologist for the idea of the Creative Writing MFA program as a whole. Not all MFA programs are created equally, and the academic value of the MFA has been diminished of late by the creation of the CW PhD by some institutions. (I think that’s unfair, by the way.) And frankly, too many CW departments do their students a disservice by not pointing out that the academic job market for creative writing has been depressed for quite some time, and that one’s chances of landing a tenure-track job fall somewhere between unlikely and “hope you didn’t lose your bartending skills while you were a TA.”

But the argument in opposition to the MFA which drives me the most around the bend is the one which ranges from “you can get everything you need from life that you can from an MFA” to “an MFA will kill your ability to write.” I think the only complete answer I can give to both those charges is “nonsense.” I suppose “bullshit” would do as well.

For example, when I finished my BA, I was about to turn 30, I’d been divorced for nearly 4 years, had a kid and no real idea what I wanted to do for a career other than learn more about poetry. I’d gotten a taste as an undergrad, but little more than that, and I knew that if I wanted to write poetry and be taken seriously, I needed not only instruction in the craft of writing, but in how to read, and in what else was out there to read. Could I have gotten there without being in an MFA program? I suppose, just as I could get to the Yucatan Peninsula by walking through Texas, but it wouldn’t have been as efficient a trip.

Here’s what an MFA program can provide an aspiring writer–time to read and write and learn more about the world of literature. It can provide a group of writers and teachers who take an interest in your work and in making it better (warning: it can also provide the polar opposite of this). It can provide useful knowledge that will help you hone your craft. Notice all those italicized “cans” there? I did that because there’s no guarantee that an MFA program will provide you with any of that, and if you’re in one and you’re not getting that–particularly if you’re not getting the first set of things I mentioned–you might want to consider leaving, because if you’re not getting time to read and write and learn, then you’re getting hosed.

Here’s what an MFA program will not give you: talent. But MFA programs don’t promise that, at least not reputable ones. MFA programs also won’t give you the drive to keep writing even when it seems no one likes what you’re doing, but again, they don’t promise that. And they won’t promise you a book contract or publications or a job teaching a 2/3 load at a Research 1 university either, and if they are guaranteeing that, then get it in writing and sue their asses once you’re finished.

Is an MFA necessary to become a serious/successful/good writer? Not at all. And if it’s not right for you, then don’t do it. If you feel your creativity is being stilted by the academic world, get out and find your own way, and best of luck to you.

But it can be useful–as long as you let it be. Don’t expect it to be some magical program that will wave away all doubts and turn you into a MacArthur Fellow. It won’t do that either. If anything, it’s likely to make you question your ability in ways you never thought imaginable. The only reason I got through my first semester at Arkansas was because I kept telling myself “they liked you enough to let you in, so you have to be doing something right.” And I came out of it okay four years later because I made the most of my degree.

One final note to all the people who are complaining that MFA writers are killing or have killed writing today. Do me a favor: either keep looking around until you find something you like or that you think is good, or write it yourself. Writing’s not dead–it’s as alive as it has always been. Just work a little harder.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments