Category Archives: Publishing

Satirize Something

Latvian cartoonist Gatis Šļūka’s “Joke About Peace,” 14 August 2014.

While many were posting, Je suis Charlie,” David Brooks was pointing out the hypocrisy of that in “I am not Charlie Hebdo.” The same people championing freedom of expression in France, he noted, are likely less tolerant toward those who offend their views at home. “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

Brooks readily acknowledges that “provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles” by saying, “Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low.” He even concludes his piece by saying, “The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.”

But, somewhere in the middle, he lets slip how he really feels (and how so many others will feel once the current hoopla concludes):

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Well, dear David, while I defend your right to sneak in such stupid stuff, I also defend my right to disagree. And on all three counts.

First, your Americanocentric concept of common mealtime customs is flawed. Unlike what you see here, the other societies that I have encountered do not segregate by age. Children and adults—even old people!—sit at the same table. Which means that kids start learning about the way that the world works from an early age. And, IMHO, become more circumspect adults. For my part, I learned that firing squads and gulags were not peculiar to my family the same way that I learned that caviar was just fish eggs and eel was a delicacy: while seated at many tables with generations of Latvian displaced people.

Second, satirists are more than silly people. I discovered that at those tables, listening to the DP’s stories. Some concerned my father, who was assigned administrative duties in Valmiera during the German occupation. That did not stop him from writing. Each night before leaving his office, he composed doggerel mocking the interlopers and pinned it to his lampshade; each morning it was gone. His friends feared for his life but recited postings from memory when their superiors were out of earshot. My father was unconcerned, saying he could hardly be arrested for a few foolish words.

Third, only bad satire is hit-and-miss; good satire stings precisely because it is so spot-on. There was nothing accidental about the reaction people had to my father’s verse. Whether it changed anything then, I do not know. But I believe it could now given the multiplier effect of our media. If Tina Fey’s caricature of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin did not determine the outcome of an election, it certainly swayed sentiment. And spawned a series of studies on “the Fey effect.” Which is what Napoleon might have had in mind when he said that James Gillray, a printmaker famous for social and political satire, did more than all the armies in Europe to bring him down.

So, dear reader, know that there are people like me out there who do not have a kids’ table at which to seat you should you partake of Charlie Hebdo. Or Chuck Palahniuk. Or The Onion. Or The Harvard Lampoon. Or Chris Rock. Or even The Interview, if you must. Moreover, they might even encourage you to cook up some satire of your own like my father did, not just be content to consume it. Even our Homeland Security Department exhorts: “If you see something, satirize something.” Or something to that effect. We all know that keeps us safe from an insidious enemy, intellectual and emotional sloth.

You can start with something easy. I recommend a threat from a far-off land or an unfamiliar culture. (I would be pleased if you took on Russia’s remarkable statement that my native Latvia can rest easy, but this is entirely up to you.) Once you master that, you can come a bit closer. Satirize something in your own land or culture. Then home in on your colleagues, friends and family. And, finally, on yourself.

Note: For more about my family and me during the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia and earlier times, see my short story “Making Soup.” My one-month-old narrator definitely deserves her place at the dining table.

What to Do When Stranded

Poetry at the Angel Tavern in the Fells Point area of Baltimore, MD, a series that Dyane Fancey and Clarinda Harriss ran in the 1970s. L to R: Jessica Locklear, Frank Evens and Clarinda. (Source: The Baltimore Sun)

Funny how these things happen.

I recently finished writing a story, “The Land Bridge Problem.” It was about a car thief who, while attempting escape on foot, unwittingly made his way onto an island in the middle of a raging river, probably by means of a slender strip of land that he could no longer locate, and had to scream for someone to come rescue him. It occurred in front of the house belonging to a narrator much like me, so I could not resist drawing parallels between a displaced person stranded in a strange land and the terrified car thief. The story began and ended with the character “Clarinda,” who was based on my friend and literary collaborator Clarinda Harriss, to whom the narrator tells her tale. And in the telling comes to see that there is a solution other than rescue to being stranded: someone who could make the inhospitable place seem more like home could be airdropped from the sky.

On the surface, Clarinda could not be less like me. For one, she is Baltimore born and bred, not someone who has had 35 separate addresses. For another, she has been involved with literature all her life, not someone who took up creative writing at an advanced age.

Her father was RP Harriss. He was was brought to Baltimore straight out of college to be HL Mencken’s special assistant. He went on to become an editor at The Evening Sun, then the editor of The Paris Herald. He also had short stories and a novel published. Clarinda followed in his footsteps, producing an epic poem by age eight and composing dirty ditties for her school chums. Her first publications were short stories, which she still writes and has recently collected in The White Rail. Her primary focus, however, has been poetry. She published her first collection, The Bone Tree, in 1971 through the New Poets Series, the predecessor of BrickHouse Books. That was followed by others, including Dirty Blue Voice and Mortmain. She also edited collections such as Hot Sonnets with Moira Egan.

It was Moira’s father, Michael Egan, who founded the New Poets Series in 1970 to give Maryland poets a voice. At that time, there was little opportunity for local poetsor writers of any sortto find an interested publisher. Michael wanted to change that, and Clarinda was there to help. She started fundraising for the Series, obtaining financial support from luminaries such as Baltimore’s own Josephine Jacobsen, the first female United States Poet Laureate, and Ogden Nash, the master of light verse. Clarinda then took over as both editor and director, incorporating the press and securing nonprofit status. Renamed BrickHouse Books, it welcomed not only poetry but also fiction, drama and creative nonfiction. Today, it has the distinction of being Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press.

I came across Clarinda in the summer of 2011, when I was the online editor at Little Patuxent Review. She had published a couple of poems in the Make Believe issue, and I wanted to do a piece on them for my “Concerning Craft” series. I sent an email message asking whether she would write up some material for me. When I got a draft within hours, I knew this was a woman after my own heart. That led to further collaboration, notably the outrageous “Self-Interview: Clarinda Harriss,” a takeoff on authors such as Vladimir Nabokov who fabricated entire interviews out of whole cloth. Soon I was proposing crazy-assed schemes beyond the bounds of LPR, usually in emails that started with the innocent question, “Wanna have some fun?”

When Clarinda invited me to the 2012  BrickHouse Books 40th birthday party, hosted by the inimitable Lorraine Whittlesey, the thought crossed my mind that I could contribute my talents to this congenial group. I immediately dismissed it, telling myself that what I needed to do was to concentrate on my own writing. To show how serious I was, I stepped down from my position at LPR in 2013. And retreated to my virtual island, where I wrote and wrote. And wondered how on Earth a little girl from Latvia had ended up in Ellicott City, MD.  And whether there was still a chance she could escape.

Then on 24 September 2014, Clarinda dropped downif not from the sky, then surely from the etherand under the guise of an email message entitled “something else to think about,” which referenced the fact that all I had on my mind for weeks was the workmen who were tearing up my historic house and taking my money, offered me the position of Fiction Editor at BHB. I shot back something flippant and then added a bit more graciously, “I would be honored.” And with that, the need to locate some submerged land bridge became less urgent. And my barren island began to fill up with all manner of Baltimore lore and literary legacy. And, for the first time, I felt that I was actually a part of it. So I decided it might be worth staying, after all.

Which takes me to what I suggest that you do if you write fiction and feel that you are isolated from the literary mainstream and maybe much more: send Clarinda and me a message, either here or at BrickHouse Books, and show us what you have. For my part, I prefer writers who have a distinctive voice and something meaningful to say, who have an obvious love of language and a subtle sense of play and who, beneath it all, show that they have good technique and an understanding of what constitutes literary fiction, even if they write in another genre. That said, I also like being surprised and having my preconceived notions blown away. If this is you, we might drop in on your remote island. And things might never be the same after that!

Apart from her role as a writer and a publisher, Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita in English at Towson University, where she was once the department head, and the honoree of the The Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize and Chapbook Contest, sponsored by Baltimore’s CityLit Project. In addition, she maintains an active interest in prison writers and restorative justice projects as well as a wide range of other social justice issues.

Regarding the above image, Clarinda’s mention of readings at The Angel for my LPR piece “Reader Response: The REAL Lucille Clifton” got me searching the Web. The only photo that I found was one on eBay, and Clarinda promptly purchased it. According to her, the “100” is written in the thick copy pencil that she remembers from her dad’s newspaper days.

NOTE: I am no longer with BrickHouse Books.