Writing in the Age of Trumpism

by Charles Bowe

The last time VSC held a public event, it was just a day and a half after the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and I had the displeasure of saying “Your attention please!” to convene the reading. When hate erupts, is everyone with a microphone required to address it head on?

And for how long must every public event be dedicated to the resistance, a position that’s fraught with misunderstanding: What exactly are we resisting? And is it our place to address The Situation when, arguably, one of our objectives is to expand our community’s attention to the broader horizon? Do you ask every participant to give some thematic priority to The Situation, a task that makes some of them doubt their relevance, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do you briefly address it and let the show go on, which some will see as callous?

The reading planned for the afternoon of this Saturday, December 3rd (1:00 at Halyards. Be there.) will be a full three weeks after Election Day, so the period of simplest mourning will have passed for many of us. Gatherings of thinking people this season nonetheless all have the pall of seeing one another for the first time after a death in the family. Though the outrage will be less raw and acute than it was a day after Orlando, for many of us it will be more pervasive and harder to ignore.

Trump’s election means many things, and I don’t propose reducing 60 million American voters to the level of the Orlando murderer, but make no mistake, one of its many meanings was an eruption of hate. Misogyny, racism, and complicity aplenty to go with them, to be their fellow travelers. And we’re not talking about, “People are saying you could have been more sensitive during the staff meeting, Charlie.” We’re talking about “Trump that bitch!” We’re talking about God-damned white supremacists.

It was a Dionysian release, but not the “dancing in the moonlight” variety. More the “she’s passed out and she should know when she drinks with the football team that this could happen” variety. The male aggression, “and what’s so wrong with male aggression?” variety.

Obama famously said, in one of his few impolite moments, that small town people "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." This is the emotional foundation of Trumpism, but without the religion part. It’s just guns and us versus them.

More relevant to the mission of Verbal Supply Company, Trumpism is antithetical to reflection, and hostile to a life of ideas. The Clintons read. Tim Kaine has his Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Obama Reinhold Niebhuhr. W. read histories and biographies of presidents, lots of them. The best answer Trump could come up with, when Megyn Kelly asked him about the last book he read, was All Quiet On the Western Front, “which is,” he added, “one of the greatest books of all time.” So obviously a lie, but also betraying a thematic understanding about as subtle as Reagan’s misuse of “Born in the USA.”

As a culture we are struggling to adjust to the new boundaries between what’s public and what’s private. Naturally, reality TV stars are the warlords of this new landscape, and one of the tackiest just bested our Ivy League protectors.

Anyone who gets up in the morning and stares at the blank page knows that at some point in their “process” their work is going to be judged by whether it says anything truthful about life. Original would be nice. Relevant to The Situation, a real bonus. Above all, though, it must be genuine. Is it the product of a cleverness machine, or is there a real human heart somewhere behind it that actually cares about the material?

Writers aren’t the only ones who wake up during a proto-fascist period and wonder what the hell they’re doing with their lives, but we agonize more, in some respects, because we know that somewhere inside that notebook or word processor is a piece of the map forward – likely a torn section of an Exxon roadmap with some creases backwards to expose the parts we figure we need to know, but a piece of the way forward nonetheless. We’re writers, after all, and people are searching for words right now.

Some of us write material whose political implications are hard to decode, or even calls your attention to something that has nothing to do with politics. An important purpose of some writing sometimes almost seems like (God forbid!) pleasure. And yet, few of us live completely cloistered lives, so suffice it to say that all of us are trying to light the way to that deeper part of the American heart that’s better than all this. Where mass deportations and water-boarding and turning our backs on the Paris Agreement are off the table because of course they are.

“Poetry can’t be harmed by people trying to write it!” as Dean Young says. And I would add that literary communities, or even activist communities, can’t be harmed by members’ listening to poetry or fiction or memoir. Our ability to listen, feel, and empathize will be challenged in the coming years, and literature will keep us in practice.

Something supernatural happens when we’re writing from the heart, when we’re letting our senses engage with our times and faithfully recording them. We end up writing things more relevant than when we’re trying to be relevant. To try writing the perfect story for the year of Trump, or the perfect poem for the age of paranoia, is probably impossible. It got written a year, or a generation, ago. This week, as I’ve started re-reading my own poems from 2016, to try finding something for Saturday, I see omens of a looming Trumpism all over them.

Verbal Supply Company would still have kept hosting readings and events, even if Clinton had narrowly won. Only the shape and temperature of the urgency would be different. Our task, in either case, is to keep writing. And if we do it from the heart we will engage in the questions of our time, in both easy-to-apprehend and unforeseen ways.

Charles Bowe blogs at morehastohappen.com




Conversations with My Son
By Stephen Tesher


My son J was six at the time we drove past a cemetery; rows upon rows of tombstones, some with glow in the dark crosses, some with taller monuments or clustered near a tomb. J has been fascinated with death. He asks me and his mother about death a lot. At first I was concerned by his persistent inquisitiveness about such a dark topic. Then I realized the topic was more fascinating than dark. It's an amazing curiosity - death. Where do we go? I don't know. We live our entire lives and never get an answer. In the end, when we are at the precipice of a life lived, all we have is faith that we - our mind, our soul, who knows? - are going to a better place. Why wouldn't a child be curious about that?

And so as we passed this cemetery, the questions began. The conversation went like this:

 J: Daddy, is that a cemetery?
Me: Yes.
J: Daddy, what are all those stones?
Me: Those are gravestones.
J: Are people buried there?
Me: Yes.
J: Underground?
Me: That's right.
J: Daddy...?
Me: Yes...?
J: Where do people go when they die?
Me: Well, some people believe that we go to a better place.
J: Is that called heaven?
Me: Some people call it heaven, yes.

 I had a feeling where his line of questioning was going. But the destination still blew my mind.

 J: Daddy...?
Me: Yes, Jaden.
J: Is heaven underground?

Emotion overwhelms me: the pure joy of a child's amazing powers of wonder. I gave him the best answer I could think of at the moment.

 Me: Heaven is wherever you want it to be.