Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

An essay at Literary Orphans

I’d like to thank Anna March for inviting me to participate in this project over at Literary Orphans. She asked us to write about identity, so I went with my journey from fundamentalist Christian (Jehovah’s Witness until I was 26) to atheist. Here’s an excerpt:

The biggest part of my journey might be due to a change in habits. For 26 years, I’d gone to a religious meeting three times a week, and done public preaching at least once a week. When I stopped going, it was like the ringing in my ears had stopped, but I’d grown so used to the ringing that I hadn’t noticed it was there in the first place. I started to hear other stuff for what felt like the first time. I got to be a different person without feeling like I was performing for a group of people, or more so, for an invisible Father who was watching my every move. Mind you, I wasn’t an unbeliever yet–I still bought into the idea that my parents’ beliefs might be correct and that I was giving up future eternal life in paradise in exchange for this freedom. It’s just that I was okay with the trade.

But imagine that: suddenly you have an extra 15 hours per week on average to explore yourself and this world you’ve only ever seen through a very limited and sheltered perspective. What would you do? You’d get high is what you’d do. You’d trip balls and drink until your head exploded and try to have sex with everyone and maybe you’d look for the religious experience in it all, because everything you’ve ever done has been in the context of religious experience. You’re looking for epiphany, for ecstasy (not the drug), for a way to grasp the universe in your teeth and shake it like a puppy does its favorite chew toy. And eventually you realize that church isn’t popping into your head as much anymore. You’re having these insights and revelations and maybe you’re still attributing some of that to a deity or cosmic force, but the pastor/elder/priest voice you’re used to hearing interpret this stuff is fading, and you’re doing more of the work on your own.

It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for certain, and I hope it comes across in the piece.

October 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We’re having…

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This is how we decided to reveal the twins’ genders at our baby shower yesterday. We’re having two girls, just in case the symbols embedded in the cupcakes don’t pop out for you. We waited until the shower to tell anyone (except a select few) about the genders, which might seem backwards, since “don’t you want people to know what to buy for you?” But not really, if you know Amy and me, because we’re really not into gendered stuff at all. Sure, if it turns out that Skeletor or Ghost Rider has a thing for princess dresses and tiaras, then we’ll deal with it, but we’re not interested in leading them down that path from birth. We’re more interested in making them nerds first.

Not much chance of avoiding that, I imagine.

Now the great name selection begins in earnest, as we’re at 5 months and obviously the things we’ve been calling them thus far won’t stick post-delivery. I suppose. Skelly and GR aren’t the worst things to call kids, right?

October 15, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Good day yesterday

Woke up yesterday morning to the pleasant surprise that I’d been included on this list of poets that will make you pay attention to poetry in 2013. What made it better was seeing lots of familiar faces–as in, people who have some connection to the Rumpus (which is what I was mainly cited for)–on that list as well. My daughter appreciated that the poem they linked to was the one I wrote about her name.

Later in the day, Amy and I went to the IVF clinic for what would be–in a good way–our final visit. Here’s the latest ultrasound image of Cobrahead and Gütküttr, our little frog-monsters who are making their way toward potential humanhood.

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They’re right on track for 9 weeks old, good heartbeats, and now Amy gets to move into more traditional care. Also, the rate of miscarriage for embryos at this point drops to less than 1%, so hurrah for that.

And then the crowner: the AWP panel I proposed celebrating the 5th anniversary of The Rumpus was accepted–first time I’ve had a panel I proposed get taken–and the one I was invited to be on that deals with the use of social media to gain an audience was accepted as well. I’ve never been a two-panel person at AWP. Hell, I hadn’t even attended a panel in years until last year’s AWP, much less been on one. And one of the panels Amy was invited to be a part of made it as well.

But here’s the twist–because there has to be a twist, right? Amy’s due date is a week after the AWP conference, or two weeks before if we’re looking at the usual calendar for multiples. So who knows if either of us will even make it to the Pacific Northwest. We’re working on options.

A note about that Flavorwire list. There are some terrific writers on that list–I’ve run poems by some and reviews by others and there’s even a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection author on there–and there are people who I haven’t gotten work from that I would dearly love to have showcased on The Rumpus as well. But it’s a really white list, and the response to some of my Twitter friends who pointed that out yesterday really illustrated what white male privilege looks like in this little corner of the world.

For instance, Michael Robbins (who was also on the list) tweeted “omg there are no nonwhite people on some list on the internet.” Read in the most generous light possible, Robbins was trying to say something about how these lists are ridiculous. And in a small way, I agree. We don’t run lists at The Rumpus and never have. Our founding editor ran a piece against them (in the form of a list) back when we first got started. They’re lazy. But I have to really stretch to get that out of Robbins’s tweet because of the tone.

It’s the dismissive “omg” and the “some list on the internet” that points to the privilege. Because it’s easy to dismiss a conversation as silly when you’re part of the group who’s always a part of it. But if you’re not part of that group, if every time you see a list that recommends people to watch in some particular field and you rarely see a face that looks like yours, then that conversation just got a lot more serious. The fact that Robbins and others could shrug off that list? That’s a privilege. But it goes farther than that. The ability to act inconsiderately in a public space and pay little or no social or professional cost for doing so is something that mostly only white males can get away with. Robbins isn’t going to have any more difficulty placing work today than he did yesterday–in fact, he’s got a reputation for being just this person, so in some ways, it seems to be working for him.

This issue of privilege extends farther, of course. I see it all the time in the political people I follow in social media. Dismissing a complaint by a minority group by saying that there are bigger issues in the world is a common white male privilege in action. You see that one all over the political spectrum, from libertarian to progressive.

And of course, there’s the white male privilege I showed off last night when I started getting retweets and favorites and new followers in (for me) droves. Because nothing I’m talking about here is original to me. I’m repeating the thoughts and arguments that women and people of color have been making for a really long time, but because I’m a white male, I’m not so easily dismissed.

I feel about this the same way I felt about being called a superdad when my now-grown daughter was 8 and I was taking her to her soccer games at 7:30 am on a Saturday. I’m only doing what I’m supposed to do. I shouldn’t get a cookie for that.

And that’s the way I feel about being inclusive in my editing choices. Of course I’m concerned about getting work from a full range of humanity. Of course I want my poetry and review section to be diverse, both in the books we review and the people we have review them. And if someone points out a place where I can do better, I listen, because I’m trying to ignore the privilege that says I don’t need to, that says I can just shrug complaints off because they don’t affect me personally or the group I’m a part of. I want no part of that if I can avoid it.

August 2, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Potential Humans

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We have two embryos maturing into what we hope will become full-fledged human beings. They’re currently as healthy as these things can be said to be–good heart rates and the proper size, etc–but we’re still a long way from babies.

We’re excited, of course. When the IVF nurse who was performing the ultrasound said “you’ve got a baby,” I almost asked her to repeat it just to be sure I’d heard it right, and when she turned the speaker on so we could hear the heartbeat, I grinned like a damned fool, clutching Amy’s hand and beaming down at her. And then a second one–both embryos had made it this far!–and we grinned even harder.

This was the first time that it’s really felt real–the pregnancy test two weeks ago was promising, but this is more solid than a voice on the other end of the phone giving us a test result. And that period between implantation and the first visible evidence that the embryo has tunneled in to the side of the uterus is a Schrodinger’s box of uncertainty (and if I’m misusing that metaphor, please remember that I’m a poet and not a physicist). Lots of morulas and blastocysts make their way into a uterus and never mature into anything more substantial. (We named the first morula we sent into what Amy has termed a “murderworld” Kobayashi, as in Kobayashi Morula. Nerds will appreciate this.)

But these two, currently named Cobrahead and Gütküttr (the better to survive in such violent and dangerous territory) are thriving, or at least are holding their own. We’ll go back in two more weeks and see if they’re still there, never taking anything for granted, because if there’s one thing that’s certain about childbirth, it’s that it’s dangerous for everyone involved. Less so for the dad. I’m not likely to die from anything in this process, but one or both of the embryos and/or Amy could, very easily. Nothing about this is safe.

So I’m excited but cautious. For now, two potential humans are in there growing, like in Alien but grosser and more terrifying. I’ll keep you posted.

July 18, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guns and Cowardice and George Zimmerman

I had trouble sleeping last night after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced. I don’t generally say things like “the jury got it wrong,” because I trust in the idea that if I’m not in the courtroom and don’t see all the evidence, then I can’t really know that. But I’m willing to do it here based on one simple piece of unchallenged evidence. George Zimmerman started the chain of events that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. It doesn’t matter if he meant to, or if he had malice in his heart–he confronted a young man who was doing nothing more than returning to his home, and that young man died at his hand. That he will be considered, in the eyes of the law, innocent, is a great travesty.

I don’t own a gun. I almost bought one once, when I was living on a farm in rural Louisiana where wild dogs occasionally came onto the property and harassed the cows. When I asked the pawn shop guy for suggestions, he said “buy a 20 gauge. A 12 gauge will kill them and then you have to clean up the body. A 20-gauge will kill them, but they won’t die until they’ve limped off into the woods.” I think it was the callous casualness with which he said that which made me decide not to buy one. I know now that I’ll never own one. I refuse to own a machine whose primary function is to kill something or someone.

I have my father’s temper, and I try to keep it in check the way he tried, but there are times when I can feel the rage build and I want to explode. It’s like one of those old cartoons where the character’s head becomes a tea kettle, and the skin color changes to red and moves from bottom to top until a whistle forms out of his forehead and the chaos begins, all flailing arms and sound effects. I usually manage to calm down without breaking something, but I can feel it in there, lurking–the desire to do violence is potent, and in a rage, the potential consequences just don’t matter. It’s also because of that temper that I refuse to own a gun. I’m scared of myself, of what I might do if I had access to something other than my body in a moment of rage.

A gun is a weapon of cowardice. It’s a range weapon, one which allows the inflicter of violence to do damage without coming into direct danger, unless the potential victim has a gun as well. Carrying a gun is an act of aggression. It is a warning that says “I can harm you with deadly force before you get close enough to lay a finger on me.” Unless you’re carrying a concealed weapon. Then you’re not trying to deter violence–you’re waiting for a moment to inflict it.

One of my favorite movie moments from one of my favorite movies is the scene from Mystery Men where the “heroes” of the film are confronted outside the bar where they’ve just been celebrating their first victory by the Disco Boys. (If I could find the clip on YouTube I’d post it.) The Disco Boys are pointing guns at them, and even while the unnamed super team is cowering from the guns, they’re still mocking the Disco Boys, because guns are a weak-ass super power. You use a gun because you have nothing else. And this is coming from a team who features a guy with a shovel, a guy who throws silverware, a guy who farts on command, a woman with a bowling ball with her dad’s skull in it, and a kid who only turns invisible when no one is looking at him. Oh, and Ben Stiller. That’s harsh.

George Zimmerman was and is a coward, so scared of his own shadow that he carried a gun with him in order to feel protected in a world where he had little, relatively speaking, to fear. And now he gets to carry his gun once again. And now more people, just as scared as George Zimmerman, will feel emboldened to carry and use their guns any time they’re frightened. We should all be afraid of that.

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Father’s Day

I didn’t celebrate holidays as a kid–well, my parents’ wedding anniversary was cause for a special dinner out–but none of the others, no matter if they traced their origins to ancient Roman festivals or the Hallmark offices. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses. So Father’s Day really didn’t hit my radar until after I’d left the church, and for many years, I always felt awkward during it for some reason. I took to Christmas and Halloween and New Year’s Eve right away, but not the parental holidays.

No doubt that had something to do with the fact that, by leaving the church behind, I’d left my family behind. That’s how they see it, anyway, that I left them. I have a different take on it, as you might expect, but really, it depends on what you consider more important–family or church. Regardless, I left the church–there is no question about that–and the result has been that I’ve had almost no contact with my parents in the intervening 16 years.

Add in that for about half of those years, my daughter lived with her mother, which meant Father’s Day, as far as immediate family went, often consisted of a phone call. Which was nice. I don’t want to make it sound like I was miserable or anything. But I never really felt in the swing of the holiday, I guess, even though I was usually surrounded by many different dads in various stages of dad-hood.

This year was different, for two reasons. One is that my daughter–grown now, almost 23–is near, and our relationship is pretty good. The other is because of this:

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Those are two blastocysts that were implanted in Amy today. This is our second time through IVF, and the odds are much higher this time that it will work. We had 6 embryos total, 5 of which continued to mature. These were the best 2 of the bunch–the other 3 are taking another day to mature and see if they’ll become viable to be frozen.

It’s a very strange feeling, trying to become a dad again in your mid-40’s, especially when you have one already done, so to speak, and when you feel, as I often do, great distance from your own father (which is complicated by the fact that he suffers from dementia). Part of me is nervous as all hell about this, because I know the kind of work that a baby entails, but a bigger part of me is excited, and hopes this all turns out. I’ll keep you posted.

June 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On the Basic Duties of Citizenship

A couple of weeks ago I got into a minor dustup on a friend’s Facebook page because I dismissed as irrelevant to me a piece by a writer (who has a reputation as a fairly antagonistic reviewer–I’ve never worked with him and likely never will) who was talking about politics and yet who, in his opening section, acknowledges that he doesn’t vote. I didn’t flesh out my response beyond that at the time because 1) the discussion was happening on a friend’s Facebook wall and not my own, and I hate it when people do that to me, and 2) there was no way to really dig down into my feelings on the matter in that format. And I’ve avoided it since then because, well, I had more important things to deal with. But it’s been nagging me ever since, so I’ve got to get it out.

A little background: I was raised in a faith which believed some curious things about the world we live in. They believed that the kingdom from the Lord’s Prayer would have a physical manifestation on earth at some point in the future, and that at present, it exists in heaven, and further, that true Christians (which consisted of them alone, naturally) owed sole allegiance to that kingdom, and no earthly kingdom. They were required to show obedience to earthly kingdoms so long as those laws didn’t violate heavenly law, but not allegiance, so no saluting of the flag, no serving in the armed forces, no belonging to political parties, and no participation in government, whether voting or running for/holding political office. The trade they made was that they didn’t criticize government policies or decisions, the idea being that if you’re not taking part in a system, you don’t have the right to criticize it.

I want to be clear about something up front–I don’t feel that way. I think the right to criticize is fundamental, and I resist any calls to silence protest and dissent in our society. However, I do think that criticism that comes from a person invested in their society is of greater value than that of a person who stands outside the system and rails against it, especially in one where citizen input is (at least in theory) a necessary part.

So what do I mean by “invested in”? At the most basic level, I’m talking about voting, because that’s the most visible way that the majority of individuals can take part in governance. And it’s a right that a majority of people in the world still don’t have in any real way, and which more than half of the citizens in this country didn’t have at the federal level until 1920. Let’s go farther with this. African-American males had the right to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment in theory, but were regularly denied the vote after the end of Reconstruction until the federal government stepped in with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even then, it’s not like a switch was flipped and people of color suddenly had an easy go of it at the ballot box. Even today, we see attempts by the Republican party to suppress the votes of people of color at the state and local level. Obviously, the vote matters if one party is trying to limit who wields it. It’s incredibly arrogant, it seems to me, to brag about deciding not to vote, given the sacrifices that certain groups of people still undergo today in order to have their voices heard. It strikes me as the kind of thing a person who’s never had to worry about disenfranchisement might do.

But when I talk about voting, I’m talking about more than just big elections. Local elections–for city council and school board, for state senate and judge–these affect our day-to-day lives in substantial ways, so even if you believe (mistakenly) that there’s no real difference between the two major party candidates for President in any given election year, you have a responsibility to the people in your community to not only know what’s going on around you but to help make decisions about what’s going to happen. Are you worried about whether teachers will be able to sneak creationism into your child’s curriculum? Then you need to vote in school board elections. Do you want a better public transportation system or less urban sprawl? Then you need to vote for the people who control zoning. And you need to vote for your state legislators as well.

And mind you, this is the least you need to do to be a good citizen. Voting, as Howard Dean put it, gives you a D for Citizenship. It’s passing, but only just. You have to do more in order to be a good citizen–you have to aggravate your elected officials, talk to your neighbors about issues that matter to you, organize and agitate both in person and online, protest if you need to, and call out the powerful when they offend you. That gets your grade up. But voting is the most necessary part of that process of being a citizen, because unless we’re going to simply give up on democracy as a fundamental part of our governing structure, that’s the way we pick who’s going to hold office, whether we’re talking locally or federally.

When you vote, you send a message to your fellow citizens, even if the candidate you support loses–even if you’re writing in a protest vote because you think all the people running stink out loud. You’re saying to them that you care enough to at least do this much. Maybe you’re not willing to do more, but you at least give this much of a shit.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece, where I said I found this particular writer’s opinions on politics irrelevant because he bragged about not voting. I actually should have said, “irrelevant to me,” because that’s what I meant. His arguments are relevant to him, and to the editor of the piece, a dear friend who I respect tremendously, and to the number of other people who praised and shared his piece around the web. They don’t matter to me, not because I find them repulsive or even disagree with them, but because I can’t bring myself to care what a person who refuses to take part in the merest part of our form of self-government has to say about it. If you, as a citizen, can’t bring yourself to do the bare minimum of citizenship, why should I care what you have to say, no matter how erudite or well-thought out it might be? You’re not involved. I’m more interested in hearing from people who actually do things that impact this society on the local and global level. I’d rather talk politics with my neighbor down the street who only took down his Ron Paul 2012 sign a month ago than argue policy with a non-voter who agrees with me on pretty much everything, because that neighbor? He’s involved. I’d rather talk with the woman four blocks away who had a Michele Bachmann sign in her yard, because she’s invested in her community, and maybe we can find common cause on some local issue in the future.

Like it or not, this is the government we have, and I’d sure as hell rather have a representative democracy than a lot of the other crap out there (though a parliamentary system might be interesting). I’m sure not looking for a dictatorship–and if you’re of the mind that we’re living in one now, I suggest you speak to people who have come here from places that have had real dictators, and then please to be shutting your mouth–so as long as I have the ability to cast a vote, I’ll be doing so, and I’ll be engaging with the other people who are doing so, because I’m not up for a coup at my age, and that’s about the only other way you get a change in government. And those of you who can’t be bothered to get involved, well, I can’t be bothered to care about what you have to say on politics.

I’ll be happy to talk about beer or poems or the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation or Aston Villa’s chances of staying up next year though, by which I mean to say that I don’t have any personal dislike for people based solely on their lack of political engagement. I’m sure there’s something we have in common. I just don’t want to hear about how taxes are too high (or low) or the problems with the schools or potholes or immigration or abortion or anything political, not if you don’t vote. On that subject, your views are irrelevant to me.

June 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why Yes, I Do Have Other Things to Do

It seems proper to me to come back to personal blogging after nearly two years with what’s basically a gripe. That’s the blogging tradition, right? Find something marginal to complain about and focus too much on the minutiae? So yeah, that’s about to happen with this piece by Paul Theroux in the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed page. And not even with all of it–just with one minor point he makes.

Theroux is talking about the importance of taking notes, and I am fully on board with him. I’m reading this piece and I’m like “yep, yep, of course, yep” and then he writes this:

No electronics, you see. No Palm Pilot, no Memo app in an iPhone, no voice-recorder, no video, no contraption, no wires—just ink and paper. A computer is useful for putting the notes onto a file, but the road—at least the ones I find myself on—is no place for anything breakable. Drop a notebook and you only need to dust it off; drop an electronic device and you’re sunk.

And then I sigh.

I’m never going to be one who denigrates writing in a notebook. Doing so this year has helped me start writing poetry again after a scary-long hiatus. And I’ve crashed enough hard drives and broken enough electronics in my life to know the unique pain of data loss. But I’ve also dropped enough notebooks in puddles and toilets, sinks and streets, not to mention just plain leaving them on coffee shop tables and park benches to know that notebooks aren’t a cure-all for data loss. Personally, I’m more likely to lose a notebook than I am to break an e-device so badly that the data is lost, mainly because I’m also a spaz about backing stuff up–to the cloud or to another device.

Besides, when was the last time Theroux dropped an e-device? They’re not the fragile little things they used to be. You’ve got to work to break some of them. My iPad has taken a pretty harsh beating over the last two years and it’s still going strong, and we won’t even talk about what my phone goes through daily.

Which is not to argue that Theroux is wrong here. He’s right when it comes to his own writing practice, and given his success, it’s obvious his practice works really well for him. And if he’d stuck with that talk, rather than going off on this claim of the supremacy of the notebook, I probably wouldn’t have decided to start blogging again today. So thanks Paul Theroux. You helped me delay the work I need to be doing for a precious few minutes.

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology

Available now from the iTunes bookstore.

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Final Notes on Joe Paterno

“This is the real drama for me; the belief that we all, you see, think of ourselves as oe single person, but it’s not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this and with another we seem very different. But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of alway being the the same person in everything we do. But it’s not true! It’s not true! We find this out for ourselves very clearly when by some terrible chance we’re suddenly stopped in the middle of doing something and we’re left dangling there, suspended. We realise then, that every part of us was not involved with what we’d been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one’s personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action.”

–The Father, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, translated by John Linstrum

I wonder if Joe Paterno ever saw this play, or ever read it, and if he did, whether or not he would recognize himself in the Father. In the play, the Father finds his moment unbearably shameful, so much so that he twists himself in rhetorical pretzels in order to lessen the impact. He is caught in the act of visiting a prostitute who happens to be his stepdaughter (they don’t recognize each other), and when she tells him she can’t accept his gift of a hat because she is in mourning for her biological father, he responds by suggesting that she take off her little black dress. It is a callous moment, shocking in fact, and the first time I read it I felt great loathing for the Father, not because of the incident itself, but because of his unwillingness to simply accept his punishment and move on.

Of course, the problem is that the Father isn’t a real person–he’s a character in an unfinished play, and so can’t move on. He really is trapped, “dangling there, suspended,” doomed to constantly relive this moment. All the audience will ever see–if this play is actually finished–is this moral weakling caught in an intensely awkward moment.

Most of the reactions I’ve seen to Paterno’s death have struck me as extreme. Many point to his long years of service at Penn State, his football team’s graduation rate, the large sums of money he donated to the university and so on. Many of his former players talked about how he influenced their lives for the better. Other reactions point to his inexcusable failure to act when he was told about his long-time friend’s abuse of young boys. As a survivor of molestation myself, I relate to those reactions–I wrote about it for The Rumpus back in November when Paterno was fired.

This is perhaps where the comparison with The Father breaks down a bit. We only really see one compromising moment on the stage–the moment in Madame Pace’s shop when the Father tells the Stepdaughter to slip off that little black dress–though others are hinted at, alluded to. But with Paterno it’s not just one event. What’s the moment which leaves Paterno “dangling there, suspended”? Is it when Mike McQueary steps into his office to report what he’s seen? Or when Paterno decides all he needs to do is tell his athletic director? Or every time after that when he sees Jerry Sandusky on the Penn State campus and wonders if he’s still molesting kids? What haunted him in these last months of his life, I wonder?

But then again, one conceit of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is that these characters are unfinished, incomplete, abandoned by their author because he couldn’t figure out how to make them whole. All they have are two scenes, both intensely tragic, that they are forced to relive, over and over. Perhaps this is the difference between Joe Paterno the man and JoePa the symbol, the legend, the abettor of child molesters. Joe Paterno is not like the Father–he had a full life, with all the complexities and ugliness and glory that entails. JoePa is–he dangles, suspended in time in one of the more horrible moments of his life. And no one can save him from playing that moment over and over. Not even death.

January 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment