all images & content © 2003 jacob miller
 
|
|
|
|
|
 
From the Yorkville Anthology of New Writers
A Collection of Poetry and Prose

edited by Jacob Miller

the yorkville anthologyTHE YORKVILLE ANTHOLOGY brings to print in one volume, for the first time, the works of an impressive new school of authors and poets that has emerged in New York. Without submitting to trendiness or shying away from raw content, these new writers bring a high velocity combination of technical achievement and a bold exploration of the shared human experience to each page. Whether it is a poem, a short story, an essay, a novel excerpt or a memoir excerpt, the high caliber of the work in THE YORKVILLE ANTHOLOGY is consistent. Selected by award-winning editor Jacob Miller, the pieces presented in this volume bring the latest imaginative work in each genre together in this compelling new collection.

 

Foreword

The words set out below were originally delivered as a verbal introduction to a group reading I hosted of the new works of many of the poets and authors contained in this anthology. However, these same words also appeal to me as a foreword to their new work in print. Mandelstam, when pressed to identify some underlying principle for the Acmeist school of Russian poets, suggested that the school's members shared "a nostalgia for world culture." Given the stakes of such a statement, in the context of the Soviet directive to write works celebrating only the Socialist achievements of collectivization, it strikes me that any articulation regarding a shared sensibility that a group of American poets and authors might offer today must suffer by comparison. All such attempts to compress a creative platform into a succinct aphorism are doomed from the start to appear as limited and reductionist. However, the words below still appeal to me, if only because they might offer a remote glimpse into something of the approach of the Yorkville Group and recall an evening, two years ago, which celebrated, as this book does, the achievements of the new work that has emerged from these poets and authors.

A FEW WORDS ON THE ORIGINS OF THE LITERARY IMPULSE

A lot of theories have been advanced regarding the origins of the literary impulse and, for those who have come here tonight not as aspiring authors but as guests who might start with a threshold question of why or how do people write, I'd like to offer a response. If no one in the audience at all is pondering this question, I'd apologize except for the fact, (and this might be as good a time as any to mention it), that for any serious writer, self-reflection independent of audience considerations is pretty much an occupational hazard. In fact, this very observation takes me back to the question of the origins of the literary impulse for it strikes me that, if there is any merit to the consideration of such a question, it may simply be in the ability of the author to achieve a more humble sense of what might be at play internally when she or he picks up a pen and levels it above a blank page or, as is more likely these days, turns on a computer and levels fingertips to keyboard below a blank monitor.

Most of all, among the many theories that have been advanced to account for the creative process, ranging from the abstract aid of the Muses or the dictation of Orpheus in classical times down to the "deliberate disorientation of the senses" advocated by Rimbaud in the Nineteenth Century, a deceptively simple explanation, I believe, has been overlooked.

Now, while it would be splendid to believe that a Greek Muse might be hovering over our shoulders with an angelic countenance when we write or that, under certain circumstances, Orpheus might be whispering the next lines needed to be leveled at the page or, as Rimbaud's biography seems to suggest, that if we drink enough absinthe and embrace decadence with a genuine appetite for depravity, then we might actually deliver truly inspired literature to the pageóWell, let's say, while all of these options might keep one busy for a bit, in terms of accurately identifying the origins of the literary impulse with anything remotely resembling precision, all of these options fail.

While each theory offers an attractively mystical explanation that's vulnerable to a multiplicity of interpretations, (i.e., Muses may be found in all shapes and sizesóblondes, brunettes, redheads, etc.óabsinthe may be adjusted to a variety of bottles, pipes and syringes), each explanation, I believe, fails to appreciate the actual human element that might be most at play in the creative process.

With apologies to all the lovely would-be Muses we may have encountered in our lives and the rivers of vodka or gin that have washed under the proverbial bridge, the literary impulse, to put it simply, in large part might just derive from our earliest impolite responses to that most commonly encountered polite interrogatory, "How ya' doin'?"

To put it another way, the polite response to the question, "How ya' doin'?" (that is, the cursory response, "fine, how're you?"), while absolutely acceptable in day-to-day society, is sorely inadequate in literature. In fact, literature demands precisely the opposite type of response to the question, "How ya' doin'?" Specifically, literature demands a more considered and more detailed response to the question, "How ya' doin'?"óa response, in fact, that in day-to-day society, in the normal conversational context, would most often be viewed as excessive or actually impolite.

Consider the following hypothetical: let's say we have a six year old boy in the 1950's sitting on the steps outside his home waiting for his father to return from work. Now the boy has had that six-year-old variety of afternoonsóa skirmish on the playground, a squabble with a siblingóthat's not altogether debilitating but also not altogether idyllic. And, in the way that children can, he's been considering the abuse he suffered in the playgroundócertain words followed by a push in a puddleóas well as his subsequent disagreement with his sibling.

Now, when the boy's father arrives and asks the boy, "How ya' doin'?," the boy may start to offer a response detailing the nature of his unhappiness as well as the particulars of both the playground skirmish and the dispute with his sibling. However, let's say that the boy's father is a retail merchant who runs a grocery store and is just now returning from fourteen hours of work and, as he's found in dealing with the public day-in and day-out that detailed responses to the question, "How ya' doin'?," will put people off, the father seeks to curb both the boy's tears and his response.

"Hey, that's more than I need to know," the father might say, then continue, "Look, ya' gotta' learn when people ask, ëHow ya' doin'?,' they don't really want to know, ëHow are you doing?' It's a figure of speech, okay? Look, if you don't have something good to say you're better off saying nothing at all."

Now, at this moment, as the father leaves the boy crying on the steps and goes into the house to make a drink, we might locate the birth of the literary impulse, for it is at exactly this moment that the boy might most wish to locate an alternate means of delivering his experience to someone or something. And even though the ability to respond to that first literary impulse might wait several years to be tested, the impulse itself has been born.

Now, down the road, as a precocious teenager, the boy may happen to read a nineteenth century Russian novel that begins with the words, "I am a sick man. I am a bitter man. I believe that my liver is diseased," and, in that moment, he may recognize the power of Dostoyevsky's non-superficial response to the implicit interrogatory, ëHow ya' doin'?' That is, it may strike the boy that the response, "I am a sick man. I am a bitter man," is quite different from his father's recommended response to the question, "how ya' doin'?" And yet, on the page, Dostoyevsky's response is far more compelling than the superficial or polite utterance, "I'm fine, how're you?"

As time goes on, the boy may encounter a wide range of non-ordinary or non-superficial responses in literature. In a poem by Robert Lowell, he might find the lines, "My mind's not right," or "I myself am hell." In a poem by Philip Larkin, he might find the lines, "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare." "This is (my) special way of being afraid." Or perhaps the boy might be caught by the line from Mandelstam, "My beautiful, pitiful century" is now "an idiot's harsh and feeble grin."

In fact, if the boy is particularly lucky, he might even encounter an exiled teacher who scratches the terra cotta stubble on his cheeks, pinches a cigarette between his thin lips and utters the following quatrain to the boy in words that only gradually emerge from the still-thick fog of the teacher's Russian accent:

A loyal subject of these second-rate years,
I proudly admit that my finest ideas are second-rate,
and may the future take them as trophies
of my struggle against suffocation.

And as the boy digests these verses and appreciates the depth of such an articulation compressed into four finely crafted lines, the absence of depth presented by the words, "I'm fine, how're you," will most likely become more and more apparent to him.

In any event, after something like this happensóafter experiencing what Marina Tzvetayeva called the reader's "complicity in the creative process"óthe boy should have the bug and realize that often those detailed answers that fail or are regarded as impolite in the social or verbal encounter somehow succeed and, in fact, offer dimension when shared in the literary context. And it is precisely this insight into the difference between social communication and literary expression that might intrigue the boy enough to pick up a pen and start to follow the march of his own written syllables as they blacken a blank page.

Now, even if one has, to borrow Winnicott's phrase, a "good enough care-giver," a patient father or mother who will not cut detailed communications short, the accepted norm of the cursory superficial response to, "How ya' doin?" in the social encounter is presented to most people at some point and, depending on one's ability to tolerate or be satisfied by the superficial utterance, the literary impulse is negotiated with internally by most people. Auden, for example, insisted that his parents not only indulged him but actually spoiled him with attention. So his emergence as a major literary figure need not be traced to any domestic filial scenario of extremis, but may be more connected to the encounter with society at large. It is true that mainstream society often does not appear to value the depth of communication entertained by authors. Nor would I say that society must. However, I do maintain that those who find the depth of creative communication entertained on the page to be engaging will find their insights into the shared human condition enriched.

To return to our hypothetical, let's say that years later the boy, who we first encountered on his own doorstep in the 1950's waiting for his father, has now grown into a young man and, with the gifts of 20-20 hindsight, he has learned that on the day in question, when his first literary impulse was born, his father had, in the course of that day, been approached by an inspector from the Food and Health Administration who wished to be paid several hundred dollars not to impose several false health code violations on him. Additionally he learns that, just as the food and health inspector left his father's store, his father was approached by a representative of a local organized crime family who persuasively argued that his father should change his linen supplier for his worker's aprons, even though the proposed new supplier would cost double what his old supplier had cost. Finally, it comes to light that shortly after this last encounter, on the very same day, his father had checked his mail and noticed that his landlord had sent him a new lease on the store implementing an immediate forty percent increase in the rent his father was to pay.

Now, to broaden the context of that day for his father, let's add that the boy, years later as a young man, starts to consider the fact that his father was a first generation American Jew whose parents had entered America just in time to escape the Holocaust, and realizes that his father was aware on that day in question that only ten years had elapsed from the time when Jews were still being fed to ovens or gassed, and that most of his father's own aunts, uncles and grandparents had ended up in those ovens. Given this broader context, the boy might begin to understand the father's fear of the detailed response to the question, "How ya' doin'?" as well as his father's desperate need to try to fit in and "keep it simple" in America.

Now, if the young man looks back at that day and wishes to work with the literary characters that arise out of himself as a boy and his father in the 1950's, he might find himself alternating between the perception of the bad or insensitive father and the reasonable man who had a staggering day by anyone's measure, as well as a culturally inherited fear dictated to him by history, and an interesting thing can occur.

On the one hand, two of the most splendid human capacities we have can be faced. Namely, the capacity to forgive and the capacity to step out of our own skin and try to step into another person's skin. On the other hand, interestingly enough, in the literary context, the emergence of the father's duality can become an asset, showing him as both an apparently bad man, (who doesn't seem to care about his son), and an entirely understandable man, (who might be struggling to make ends meet precisely to take care of his son). Indeed, it is often just such a duality that can add depth and dimension to the character development of any poem or story utilizing such a character that both the author and reader may most wish to consider.

And this is exactly where literature starts to emerge, at that threshold where an author's experience may accelerate toward a deeper understanding into the nature of our shared human experience, complete with all of our flaws, our imperfections and our contradictions.

Now it may be that academicians and sophisticated authors might seek more subtle words on the literary impulse than have here been offeredóthat others might wish to hear a credo advocating such particulars as the deliberate contrast in crafting that may be achieved by utilizing classical technique to house the most rough-hewn contemporary content in a compelling manneróor that still others might wish to hear the particulars of a new Ars Poetica that can invigorate such devices as rhyme through the avoidance of hard end-line sound relationships and the pursuit of slant, approximate or assonance-driven sound relationshipsóbut the target, a deeper understanding of the nature of our shared human experience, remains as the integral engine that drives all particulars associated with the literary impulse. And it is that seemingly simple human drive to understand more while we're still breathing, even if it requires exploring an impolite response to a polite question, which still strikes me as being most at play in the creative process.

Now the interrogatories may be adjusted for certain poets. For example, instead of the general, "How ya' doin?" Auden might be identified as responding to, "What do you think?" Lowell, on the other hand, might be identified as responding more to the question, "How do you feel?" But, in any event, a fundamental existential question of some kind may be seen to lurk behind the initial literary impulse for each author. Again, we may miss the Muses and the absinthe, but the polite question impolitely considered might be the most accurate explanation we have for the emergence of decent literature.

.............

I am enormously proud of the group of poets and authors presenting tonight, not because I feel, in any way, that I can take credit for their achievements, but merely because my affiliation with them, the proximity to people who are willing to commit to the non-ordinary, non-superficial response, is such a gift.

Their work you will hear tonight presents a diverse range of genres, which I believe reflects the best way to view literatureóthrough diversity rather than the isolation that elevates only one type of writing. Consistent with this view, the work presented ranges from historical poems, erotic verses, short stories, novel excerpts, a children's story, nonfiction stories and memoir excerpts. I turn the floor over now to the Yorkville Group.

-Jacob Miller

 
about
|
writing
|
services
|
workshops
|
message board
|
contact