Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bloomsday in Baraboo

At the Bloomsday observance last year in Baraboo, Wisconsin, I sat and listened to two of the relay-race readers who would hand off Ulysses to one another —— on the hour, hour after hour, on that middle-June Sunday when Martha and Sammy and I were set up at the Baraboo Sunday market ... a day that was part of our season-long challenge to ourselves to see if we could keep bringing our antiquated stuff to a flea market —— a relatively genteel and easy-going and agreeable one —— week after week, May to October.

I watched these readers mostly from afar: for we occupied a space on the Baraboo Square opposite Annie Randall's Village Booksmith, where the Joycean celebratory readings have taken place on Bloomsdays since 2004.

This, the routine: a reader would sit down and declaim (or aim to declaim) Joyce's text, while sitting at a wooden chair at a table on a busy street in front of that comfortable and inviting bookstore ... reading Joyce's words to the air.

A friend or listener might occupy another chair at that small table, or might not. The readers, with a dedication to performance that I understood and hope that they all did, too, kept at their readings whether a listener sat there or not —— perhaps not even aware if ears might be hovering nearby, since the tangling and jumping and riverrunning words these readers needed to translate into lip, tongue and throat motions must have required more of their attentions than they would have exercised on a typical lazy and summery June-weekend afternoon.

Last year, Wisconsin dragged its feet through a drought while vacationers reveled in unbroken vacation-friendly weather; and in Baraboo that Sunday for the background and sometimes foreground of these readings came car-engine commentaries, oblivious passerby idle-but-loud conversations, and even, while I was sitting in a listener's chair, the thrumming-down flatulences of massed motorcycles nearing the nearby intersection, going br-r-r-r-oom instead of Bl-l-l-l-loom. Drowned sounds of Joyce, and the waves of noise that industry has made an unpleasant permanence in our lives ... and passing chit-chat ... and the running-through, too, of the internal monolog even a dedicated listener must listen to, within herself or himself ...

Really a rather nice experience of the Charles Ives sort.

Music. Environmentally enhanced.

Last year I would happily have volunteered for a reader's slot, had we lived nearer by. We live an hour and a half away from Baraboo, by state and county highways, however —— and in Baraboo I was an unknown quantity. Through the course of being there on the square, Sunday after Sunday, however, we gained some sense of that small city and its community —— artistic and antiquish, both —— and so when Annie two weeks ago stood in our booth describing the upcoming Bloomsday plans, I volunteered. The whole event will fall in our "working hours" in Baraboo: for the reading of the whole of Ulysses will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday and end at 3 p.m., the latter hour being the one when the Sunday Market ends. So Martha will oversee our booth for that last hour —— not quite alone, since Sammy will be there —— while I babble to the air.

... and all in one hour. In past years, Annie has overseen a thirty-six-hour marathon of readings. This year, she oversees thirty-six readers who will be reading simultaneously at locations around the downtown square. Annie told me she expects to cut up a copy of the book ... which made me think I may well be starting in the middle of a sentence ... appropriately enough ...

And will all thirty-six begin in the middle of sentences, at once?

Whatever the situation, I will be one of the thirty-six, with my station tentatively being on the square itself, by the cannon beneath the white pines near our usual Sunday Market space ... and come what may, be it rain or tourist apathy or hecklers enlivened into buffoonery by visits to the clown museum, I will read my allotted text and feel during it what I feel now —— honored to have the chance to take a small part.

I have read Ulysses —— albeit only once all the way through —— and had I lived in Baraboo I would have enjoyed undertaking a marathon as listener, following along, book in hand, through every hour of that reading that I could attend. What an experience that would be! Does anyone do this, at any of the Bloomsday events? In the hour or so that I listened, last year, I sat there wishing I knew what page to find, in the book there at the table, in order to follow along.

Being the reader at such an event offers a more intense experience than being the listener, however: for the reader performs and listens at the same time.

A symbolic hour of simultaneity! —- for an Irish Symbolist who still seems an enduring presence.

I will be there; and I feel sure that many others, whether they know it or not, will be there, this year or next, partaking in an ongoing festival of words that have the capacity to grow into life, even when spoken only to air.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Correction for NYRSF Chan Davis Essay-Review

Because of the political nature of much of Dan Davis's writing, I took pains over the wording of my essay-review about It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, edited by Josh Lukin. My essay has just appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction (25:9, whole number 297, May 2013, pp. 1, 4-6) —– and unfortunately near the beginning it contains a sentence that makes me sound a touch out of touch.

While I favor there being a bit of nonsense in my writing I would rather put it there myself, accidentally or otherwise.

A well-meaning editorial change has created this sentence: "After the Red Scare, Davis cut short his career at University of Michigan, opting to leave the United States and reestablish himself in Canada."

What I wrote is this: "Davis, after the Red Scare cut short his career at University of Michigan, opted to leave the United States and reestablish himself in Canada."

I am politically unsavvy in many ways —— but not in such a way that I think Chan Davis enjoyed any choice about his Michigan career ending. Fortunately, later in the essay I mention that Davis received summons and jail time: so persevering readers may think I am not as much a cluckbrain as I appear to be, at first ... or perhaps more of one.

Perhaps I chose too positive a word in "opted." Resuming his academic career in the U.S. had closed, as an option. Unpleasant circumstances and the purging of the liberal element from U.S. higher education forced him to "opt."

Would Davis have remained bitter about the University of Michigan's failure to apologize for its actions, had it indeed been the case that "Davis cut short his (own) career" ... ?

Cheers ...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wiscon, Sexism, SFWA ... and Speculative Fiction and Speculative Poetry

The new furor over at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America creates sympathetic reverberations here, far away —— even though I am a man and the issue relates to depictions of women, and moreover not currently a member of SFWA. The furor reverberates here all the same. In recent years I have liked SFWA mainly for its membership directory. I had no money for membership in recent years, though, thanks to the C.M. Kornbluth biographical work; and so I thought I would just fade away. It remained in mind that if I could overcome the pennyweight writing doldrums then I might send in my overdue dues. SFWA kept sending me the relatively useless Bulletin —— probably, too, thinking that I might make good eventually, since I have done so in other lean years ... although its hopes must have been tinted with practical sense, since it never sent its directory.

It strikes me as perhaps strange, perhaps inevitable, that the current controversy should have near its center the forever-droning-on SFWA Bulletin palaver between one senior writer who has lived on the fat of Sciencefictionland and another who has gotten by on the lean —— a sort of Winnie-the-Pooh and Eeyore duo. Despite the sometimes useful discussions that arise in their pages the somnolent monotony prevails —— especially since the latter figure, with faraway dooms hidden behind his deep-lidded eyes, keeps genuflecting to the worldly success and knowledge of the former. That latter writer provides the more literary interest, while the former offers a vision of the beneficent behemoth that science fiction is, to the uppermost half-percent of its writers.

Perhaps strange, perhaps inevitable —— because one of their conversations had made me ask myself, "Do I care any more if I belong to this group?" How could I? Mike Resnick intoned about C.M. Kornbluth, and mentioned two books —— The Futurians and The Way the Future Was, and not mine, that I daresay has more to say about Kornbluth than any other book yet in existence. In response, Barry Malzberg said nothing.

This left me with bitterness flourishing like black rot on the tongue. Malzberg had read my book and praised it highly —- to me. Not to the world, apparently.

If, when in command of the SFWA membership's attention, the one writer who might have mentioned my book knowledgeably was failing to do so, for whatever reason, why should I want to stay in the organization?

At Wiscon two weekends ago, Mary Rickert asked me if anyone had spoken up for me, during that absurd episode when the author of The Way the Future Was identified me with "the forces of evil."

"No," I answered.

The other day I read several blog postings concerning the current furor, including one by Ann Aguirre, whose work I do not know. Aguirre's statements of cold-shouldering and public snubbing by established male science fiction writers astonished me. I had thought that the goons and gropers had been shooed away, by and large, and that the imbecile high priests to masculine writerly prowess had learned the tape-to-lips trick to look smarter. Not so, apparently. Yet on reflection how could I have known? The convention that I have attended the most, and to which I feel most allegiance, is Wiscon —— statedly feminist, and in practice egalitarian in attitude toward those who exhibit their own egalitarian spirit.

Many social problems of the sexist and racist sorts, I suspect, would begin disappearing if we would simply do this: erase "science fiction" from a convention's name and pencil in "speculative fiction." In doing so we would be harkening back to the split between the marketing category and the literary category, which I speak about in Kornbluth. Likely only a few science fiction conventions could make this shift, however. The one that I think could do it almost without effort is Wiscon. The serious, thoughtful fiction discussed in its panels and encouraged by its system of rewards and awards would fit more naturally beneath the literary banner than under the marketing one. If Judy Merril when she was guest of honor had revived her old campaign and had urged that the convention adopt the literary term "speculative fiction" and had tapped into the same energy and spunk with which Karen Fowler and Pat Murphy announced the Tiptree Award years ago, what might then have unfolded?

The great acceptance speculative poetry has enjoyed —— as a term, as a focus for panels —— at recent Wiscons offers evidence for a group mindset that might accept the change. The energy at this Wiscon 37 in this direction surprised me. Friday evening featured a lively panel, "Women's Speculative Poetry Now," with Lesley Wheeler, Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin and Sophia Samatar. The next afternoon brought "Open Secrets: A Speculative Poetry Reading," featuring "members of the Secret Poetry Cabal (a speculative poetry group)" —— a likewise lively affair with multiple poets and a large, appreciative audience. The last reading I attended at Wiscon, moreover, included Wheeler reading from her new Aqueduct Press book whose title poem (to bring matters back around to my original subject) deals with sexual harassment. (Timmi Duchamp of Aqueduct bemoans the fact that she took no notes during Friday's panel. I went prepared to do so, though —— and hope to describe that event in greater detail. Wheeler's book I came home with, and hope to dip into further.)

In the meantime, try the sound of this: "Wiscon: World's Leading Feminist Speculative Fiction Convention." Would such a name lose any attendees? Would it gain any? Would it further deter the "science fiction" sorts Aguirre encountered?

For me, I may hold out for a Speculative Writers organization to join, someday, and forget about that senile-fogey "Science Fiction" group. Blish and Knight should have known better, way back when —— no? And I should have stuck to my youthful guns, too, and persisted against the marketing tide and clutched "speculative fiction" even closer to my heart than I did.

(The subtitle of my Kornbluth biography, which was suggested by McFarland, by the way, remains fine: for "science fiction" remains the accurate term for the period 1939-58.)

Cheers ...