Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The writer as a person (post Iowa)

The last evening of the Empire is devoted to gossip, not poetry - Ex Scripturis from Clouds of Magellan, Norman Dubie.

Well 'tis not quite the last evening but my it draws close. If Lucifer himself rode this neck of the woods the nights would not move swifter than they are at present. I have said the word goodbye, in any way except this, at least twenty seven times this past week alone. I think life asks too much of me. So of course I do what I have always done when all is not as I wish it, I retreat quietly into myself, leave enough of a shell to entertain those around me while I secretly practice leaving. Too late I have found there is much inside to confront and so only the page is left - a kind of outside inside.

Writers I think suffer from an incurable case of internalized cabin fever. They carry it with them wherever they go. Of course, before we begin I must warn you, what I know of writers could fit on the head of a Pseudacteon fly.

You cannot generalize about anything, let alone about some thing, as human and individualized as a writer. But this is my world - caveat lector - I may occasionally cross my i's and dot my t's if I wish.
And some writers well they prefer pages over people.
They prefer to talk when no one but their many selves is able to talk back - on a stage (raised platform, one mic). On the page (the voices in your head can scream all they want, in the end there is only one pair of hands that can write or type in the room).
Residencies on the other hand, depending on their structure but all on some level at least require contact. With other writers, local communities, students or staff.

The University of Iowa's International Writing Program plays host to 30 or so writers per annual 10 week residency. They get a room,  a weekly cleaning service, access to a laundry room and gym, a weekly ride to the grocers and Time. As Iowa City, which is where the writer is based for the duration of the residency, is a college town everywhere is within walking distance; by everywhere I mean eateries and bars, clothing and book stores - you might need a ride to get to a cinema if you must absolutely see Cloud Atlas before the residency's end. In short between the 5 million text library and the corn fields you can write all you want, if you want.

Two resident and one local writer read at the Prairie Lights bookstore every Sunday

They let us out, occasionally :) Truthfully? besides a handful of mandatory events; a reading, guest writer presentation to an international literature today class and perhaps participation on a panel, your time can be your own. There will likely be offers, serpents of fortune or seducers of ego come knocking at individual doors requesting you to work with teenagers or visit other American cities and towns to read or speak. You may choose to decline all or some of these to focus on your writing.

In Chicago outside Cloud Gate with Uruguyan poet Luis Bravo and Russian novelist Alisa Ganeiva.

People around you will all be fluent in the language of literature but not always in a shared spoken tongue. For example I do not speak any Chinese or Arabic or Belarusian if I did this would have stood me in good stead with a couple of writers this year, or if they spoke Setswana. In lieu of this subjective failure on our parts we meander through various velds of English as a kind of sometime middle ground. I suspect this experience is way less stressful or certainly more enjoyable for those who can speak English with some degree of fluency as this leaves you free to engage with strangers on the streets, news, local programming, stuff than if you are your own translator all day long; keep in mind professional simultaneous interpreters are often limited to working four hour days, thats how stressful the act of filtering and then formulating a repetition/response in another language is considered to be. 

Very few people will know where your country is unless your country has been in the news for one reason or another. Botswana being a non conflict zone is rarely spotlighted through the international lens - one of my next blogs will be a list of 3 free associations undergraduates wrote in advance of one of my class visits, based on a simple instruction to write down what they thought upon hearing the word 'Botswana'. This national anonymity has meant I have drawn maps, goggled landscapes and elephants on my iPhone in bars and on the street, listed demo-graphics verbatim and with such certainty my primary school teacher Mma Sichinga would have given me at least two gold stars.
You will say your own name so many times that by the end you may wish to change it just so you can hear something new or different.
You will make friends, if you are as lucky as I have been. You will hopefully not have any confrontations but are likely to not get along with someone(s) for no particular reason than that you are human. I have heard the term madimabe from my own language, it translates to bad blood and is an idiomatic phrase referring to an inexplicable, I think mutual, dislike of someone. There is nothing to see here children move along, I mean only that if you watched the movie Unbreakable or even if you didn't but find that despite this you are magically able to form your own thoughts without Hollywood spoonfeeding you and in the unlikely event that you believe that opposites must exist to ensure balance, then surely if you can randomly like someone for no reason the opposite is at the very least a possibility.

I am an angel.
I, TJ Dema, like everyone. After all are we not all fodder for the great storytelling machine? If Aristotle is right and "the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood,..and through imitation (he) learns his earliest lessons," then perhaps dislike is a kind of anti-imitation; a recognition of what the 'I' would not/ can not/ chooses not to do. If that were true then we learn just as much from that reaction to the other, we strike some act from our possible repertoire. Where is this going? nowhere in particular, welcome to the gaps in my head - I have to live here.

I should probably point out here that one of the signs of our cabin fever is the manifestation of mental degradation in the form of self aggrandizement through random literary references as well as impossible statements denoting magnanimity and often spoken in the third person.
Other symptoms include: irritability, avoidance of human contact, insomnia, a sudden case of the chatties, intermittent invisibility, weight gain or loss, subversive silences and general homesickness.

If wikipedia is right and a witness is "someone who has, who claims to have, or is thought, by someone with authority to compel testimony, to have knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest" then I bear testimony that there is much to see and hear, to smell and touch, to learn and teach in Iowa City. And if you are able to travel the world or wish to do so but do not do everything in your power to at least try to, then you are a fool. I know, I was one for the longest time so I am in fact the best kind of witness, both percipient and an expert in the field of tomfoolery. Step out into the world, there is nothing like it, not a thing could teach so well what a lucky fish you are. Whatever your circumstance. 'Tis true the world will, we hope, always be here but you will not.

On that optimistic note, dear reader I say it is never really goodbye only so long.

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