March 2009 Guest Editor, Mick Parsons
As a writer I always return to the notion of voice. I am, quite naturally, concerned with my narrative and poetic voice (as they have, lately, seemed to merge); but I’m also attracted to work by other writers that bellow with a unique, profound, or interesting voice. In a related vein, one of my biggest frustrations as a writer and a reader is when a voice is judged – not by it depth, ideas, or content – but by the place the voice is born.
Writers come from all areas and all ilks. There isn’t one combination of events or circumstances that make one. Hemingway was the son of a country doctor. Bukowski’s old man was milk man. Robert Lowry’s dad was like every other dad in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Anias Nin wrote porn. Plath was the victim of childhood abuse. Dickens’ dad was a clerk. Whitman’s father was lousy with money. Toni Morrison grew up in a working class family in Ohio. The only thing all these writers have in common is an obsession with words – and they bring with them the sum of their thoughts and experiences. Their work reflects an attempt to translate their lives and experience honestly – which is all anybody can ask.
It’s not fair that Morrison, Hemingway, Plath, and Dickens are anthologized, deified, and taught in university literature classes, while Bukowski and Lowry are ignored, Whitman is taught rarely, and exposure to Nin is limited to Women’s Studies and Feminist Literature classes. It’s not fair that the inclusion or exclusion of writers has more to with what will earn tenure for a would-be scholar instead of what’s worth reading. But, the accusation of snobbery against academia is nothing new – and, in fact, academics thrive on the label. Being labeled a snob or an “academic” can be interpreted (and often is) as being more educated than the general masses. So, as much as some people enjoy hurling the accusation, the people it is typically aimed at enjoy it just as much.
It’s also not fair, however, that a similar form of snobbery exists amongst those who tend to hurl the accusation. Writers of depth and quality who do their work outside the conspicuously isolating wall of higher education act as though they are excluded by design (a valid criticism) and retaliate by setting their own standard for what “good writing” is. They don’t want their work co-opted or their intellects influenced. And because every writer (including this one) is on some level an egomaniacal ass, the first inclination is to insult and to segregate based on literary tradition, artistic influences, or level (or lack of) formal education.
Because of this, I have chosen to isolate myself from the majority of literary company. I have a few friends, mostly old and one or two new, who are writers. But typically, I’d rather talk baseball than talk shop. As a working academe (translate: peone) I have gone to quaint readings of well intended and hard working writers who take their craft as seriously as anybody I listed above and the ones I don’t have the space to list, only to find an audience of equally dedicated writers of similar sensibility. My own work tends to be thought of as not academic enough in these circles. When I have sought refuge in writing communities outside the university, my work and my person were labeled “too academic.” The quote that comes to mind is from William S. Burroughs (who is also rarely taught): “Fuck ‘em all. Squares on both sides.” We are all engaged in coping with the same necessity to write. And while we find different avenues to steal the time away from the world – which knows nothing of what we do unless it’s on a bookstore shelf, or (yee gods) on Oprah, and couldn’t care less for our piss ant infighting and endless ego stroking – we end up hurting ourselves by limiting the range of our voices and our ideas.
Some of the writing that comes out of universities is good. Much of it isn’t. Some of the writing that comes out slam poetry contests and outsider writer gatherings is good. Much of it isn’t. But in the end, all we end up doing is covering up our own voice in an attempt to drown out the voice of others – which, to me, seems like a colossal waste of precious time.