The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
The first time James Franco and Frank Bidart met, they stayed at dinner talking for eight hours, the restaurant closing around them and leaving a waiter behind to lock up. They both told the story at their joint reading in Chicago (last Wednesday), plus it’s recounted in Franco’s new book of poems. Before that fateful dinner, Franco was simultaneously pursuing an MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina and an MFA in film studies at NYU. He was introduced to Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” at the former and decided to adapt it for an assignment at the latter. His poetry professors put him in touch with Bidart so he could ask permission.
Bidart wanted to have dinner with Franco first, so that he could explain his intentions in writing “Herbert White” (which is written in the first-person character of a necrophiliac murderer), plus, he said, “Of course I wanted to have dinner with James Franco! He was brilliant in Pineapple Express!”
Bidart, 74, is one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century — friends with both Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, and now James Franco. After their Before Sunrise-style meet-cute the two stayed in touch, sometimes trading new poems they had written. Franco completed his adaptation of “Herbert White,” and after reading Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West,” which Bidart wrote about himself writing an earlier poem, “Ellen West,” Franco responded with “Directing Herbert White,” written in the same style.
All of which lead to Frank Bidart and James Franco coming to Chicago to promote Franco’s new book of poetry, of which “Directing Herbert White” is the title poem, and none of us knowing what to make of it. The sold-out auditorium was partially filled by excited young women taking lots of camera photos and giggling a little too readily at everything Franco said, and partially by members of either of the event’s sponsors — The Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation — regular arts patrons who are accustomed to far fewer screaming girls in their midst. This clash of the fawning and the cynical made for a weird vibe, navigated by those of us who were conveying with our body language that we were sort of there ironically. (It had been a big joke at the bar earlier, that I was leaving to go see James Franco read poetry.)
But perhaps I’m underestimating my fellow attendees by generalizing them. The arts patrons, after all, didn’t have to come when they found out a Hollywood star would be reading, and I had certainly dressed a little bit nicer than usual and took more than one photo with my iPhone. More likely, most of us were of two minds about it — pretty sure the evening wasn’t going to be intellectually dazzling, but more than a little excited to see Franco, who it can’t be denied was great in Pineapple Express.
What I wasn’t expecting was how unironically enjoyable and inspiring the evening would be. The venerable poet and the handsome young celebrity are too fond of each other, too unabashedly excited to be working closely with someone they greatly admire, to roll my eyes at. Bidart recounted that watching Franco adapt his poem into a film was “thrilling,” a word he peppered throughout his account. When you get to be his age, he explained, you “think you know the parameters of your life,” and most experiences are repetition. Franco, he says, continually “astonishes the guardians of category” with his art and poetry and film and prose, and Bidart is — as he so often repeated — thrilled to be his friend and de facto mentor.
The common line on Franco is that he’s good at the Hollywood stuff and that’s what he should stick to — leave the poetry and film to those who devote themselves to it more exclusively. Many of the poems in Directing Herbert White are about Hollywood, and they reveal how uncomfortable Franco is with being tied or beholden to a place that “devours its young” (Bidart’s words). There are poems that feature Lindsay Lohan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and Brad Renfro (a lesser-known actor friend of Franco’s who died of a drug overdose, after which Franco had the name “Brad” carved into his arm).
It’s easy to see why an actor who became famous very young might be captivated by others who were brought down by the same young fame. It’s easy to see why he might seek so much outside of Hollywood (the man now has five MFAs) even as he’s constantly told it’s where he belongs, and it gets harder to think he should stop. In this way, finding Bidart must have been like finding an angel — someone who supports and even champions his multifold pursuits.
Both men are operating outside of the expected parameters of their life and it was invigorating to see how much they’re enjoying it. It may not compare to the joy of hearing Seamus Heaney read or the awe at hearing Marilynne Robinson, but I’ll remember that Frank Bidart and James Franco made me want to be bolder. Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West” ends with the line: “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.” I think we could all admit a little more freely that we don’t know enough, that we’re just trying new things, and lucky to find friends along the way.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
There is a wonderful exchange in the documentary Moving Midway between the descendant of a North Carolina plantation owner, and the grandson of that same plantation owner’s mixed-race son. The documentary follows the moving of Midway Plantation, which sat across the road from a strip mall, to more secluded acreage. Godfrey Cheshire, the filmmaker (also a descendant of the plantation owners) starts looking into the history of Midway, including its slave families, which is why Abraham Lincoln Hinton, a 96-year old man from Harlem, is invited to the house’s re-opening party.
As he stands in the front hall, Godfrey tells him that the house had originally been built in 1848. “This house?” asks Hinton, “built then, and stood up like this?”
“That’s because your family built it,” says his host.
Everyone relaxes, including the viewer, with sheer relief that someone has said something candid. These two men, who are connected by a long, ugly history, but who weren’t personally involved, and both seem very gentlemanly, have such a strange, limited space in which they can relate to each other. Engaging the history of the South would be too sober a task and, quite frankly, not their responsibility, but acting as if they’re just two guys meeting on a porch is too flippant. The resulting atmosphere is cordial but constricted.
This is how I felt for the entire three days I recently spent in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just being there reminds you that, had you been born in a different time or place, there were people you would be expected to hate. Not everyone chooses to travel to the physical embodiment of racial and sectional conflict, but then I am a history fan. And, as I wrote in March, I’m in the process of reading a biography of each American president. Having recently arrived at the Civil War, I decided to celebrate, if such a word can be used, by visiting Gettysburg.
Along with everything else, Gettysburg is beautiful. The three-day battle spread itself for miles around the town, and because the battlefield is now a national park, Gettysburg is surrounded by woods and fields that have remained untouched except by monuments. As Kent Gramm writes in the opening of his book, Gettysburg, “It is the most beautiful place on earth. But death is everywhere — in every meadow, along every Virginia rail fence, all over those quiet, rocky hills at sunset.” My friend Kara, who traveled with me, and I spent our time learning and relearning the story of the battle. A topographically-based battle is remarkably easy to grasp, especially when the topography is preserved, and you are walking around on it.
There are two long, parallel ridges – Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge – that extend southward from the edge of town and frame the second and third day’s fighting. Then there are the contested hills – Culp’s Hill, Oak Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top – that provided more brief, concentrated action. The major events of the battle – Buford’s stand on the first day, the Wheatfield and the Little Round Top bayonet charge on the second day, Pickett’s Charge on the third day – cluster around these high grounds.
We spent the first day at the Gettysburg visitors’ center and museum, plus a visit to the room-sized diorama. The next day we went on the self-guided auto tour, for which you listen to a CD in your car that tells you what points to drive to and what to know about them (usually: the next stop is a spot where many brave men died), and walked in the National Cemetery in the evening. The third day I went on a horseback ride along the Confederate encampment lines with a Robert E. Lee impersonator. As Kara said, you can’t throw a rock in Gettysburg without learning a historical fact (did you know Union Major General Daniel Sickles shot and killed Philip Key – son of Francis Scott Key – for sleeping with his wife, and was one of the first people to be acquitted of murder via a plea of temporary insanity?). By the end of the trip we knew the narrative of the battle like the backs of our hands.
The town of Gettysburg is entirely dedicated to teaching you what happened there 148 years ago, but it avoids interpreting itself. The museum’s 15-minute orienting film introduced me to the Gettysburg gaze — a particular brand of narration (in this instance supplied by Morgan Freeman, impartial as the voice of god always is) that pervades the town, describing every skirmish as good vs. good. Good wins.
Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, which we listened to on our drive, is the champion of the Gettysburg gaze. Its film adaptation, Gettysburg, takes it even further. Scored like NBC scores the Olympics, the film features commanders in freshly dry cleaned uniforms who philosophize more than they command. One Union commander, marveling at General Lee’s success, says “It’s amazing what one honest man can do.” “One honest man,” his superior replies, “and a cause.”
This is freakishly off point. The Southern campaign for independence was not one honest man and a cause. It was the culmination of near a century of sectional conflict which, among others, The Missouri Compromise, The Wilmot Proviso, The Compromise of 1850, the repeal of The Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, and The Kansas-Nebraska Act all in turn failed to assuage, and finally escalated into a fury. Sure, it all started as Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism, but those were hardly the rallying cries of the armies as they shot at each other.
The auto tour ends on the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, the foolhardy press of 12,000 Confederate soldiers towards the better-situated Union line, which decimated Lee’s troops, ended the three-day battle, and turned the tide of the war. You stand on Cemetery Ridge, looking at Seminary Ridge on the other side of town, and you try to imagine two armies watching each other across that distance, preparing to fight each other because the Constitution didn’t explicitly prohibit slavery. Your brain tries to fill in all the steps in between and obviously falters. In Gettysburg, Kent Gramm argues that the Civil War was fought for opposing abstract ideals — union and independence. As you stand on Cemetery Ridge, picturing 7,000 dead bodies scattered in the valley before you, it’s hard to comprehend that they got there because of opposing abstract ideals. So you stand with furrowed brow for a bit longer — that bizarre requisite time you spend standing silently at complicated historical locations, usually about two minutes — and go back to the car.
All our days ended this way. The stories and statistics would build up until it was impossible to grasp, so we’d go back to the hotel and collapse on the beds to read the AV Club and update our Facebook statuses. This is when the Gettysburg gaze comes in handy. Everything turned out fine, you tell yourself, everyone involved was brave and good and civil rights were just around the corner. (That sounds ridiculous, but one narration we heard drew a direct line from Gettysburg to Jackie Robinson.)
The closest encounter I had with partisanship during my visit was talking with the Robert E. Lee impersonator on a horseback tour of the battlefield. He bemoaned the fact that I was from Indiana, preferring to socialize with his fellow natives of “God’s country.” I told him, though, that my family had lived in North Carolina before settling in Indiana in the 1850s, and that the relatives who remained behind served for the South. He praised the brave deeds of the regiments from that state, to which I assured him he was welcome. Eager to use my outsized knowledge of 19th century politics, I chatted with him about George McClellan and John C. Calhoun, the presidential elections of 1852 and 1856, and the Mexican-American war (which he fought in, although he disagreed with policies of James K. Polk, who is a long distant cousin of mine, and this caused some tension). In all this he avowed Southern partiality, but in a passive, melancholy way.
The New York Times published an editorial in 1867 that read: “The contest touches everything, and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and of thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The greatest mercy of Gettysburg is that it releases you from culpability. It’s the American Mordor. Whatever the sins of the past, they were destroyed there in fire. Surely we continue to read about and visit Gettysburg to learn what happened, but just as much to confirm that it did.
Image credit: The stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, via the author
When Sarah Vowell comes to town, she brings with her the oddest bunch of Puritans you’ve ever met. Sometimes cruel, often endearing, highly literate (for a pre-Enlightenment society), occasionally confounding in their contradictions, the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s come to life in Vowell’s latest historical slice of arcane Americana.The Wordy Shipmates reveals Anne Hutchinson as a headstrong Puritan guru who enraged the Puritan leaders by claiming that God spoke directly to her – blasphemy to the Puritans who don’t believe in that kind of revelation. It spotlights Roger Williams as a banished, tormented, confrontational colonist who is “hard to like but easy to love.” The core of the book, however, is John Winthrop, the governor who took the parting sermon of John Cotton in which Cotton tells “these about-to-be-Americans” in inspiring language that “they are God’s new chosen people” and governs the new colony accordingly, helping to sow the seeds of American exceptionalism which would go beyond colonists spreading God’s word to the natives, and would ultimately permeate U.S. foreign policy in the centuries to come.John Winthrop’s own sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” calls on New England to be “as a city upon a hill” – a beacon of righteousness. As Vowell puts it, the “worldview behind that motto – we’re here to help, whether you want our help or not – is the Massachusetts Puritans’ most enduring bequest to the future United States.” But the same sermon also outlines a more humble notion of America. Vowell writes: “Dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada.”Sarah Vowell read this passage to a packed and adoring crowd here in Toronto as part of the recent International Authors Festival. We’re a strange bunch, we Canadians. Virtually every day of the year we keep our national pride under wraps, shying away from overt acts of flag-waving, hooting-and-hollering patriotism. But put us in a theatre in downtown Toronto, bring in an erudite and thoughtful writer, and if she heaps even the slightest praise upon Canada, we’re in heaven. More so if it’s an American doing the praising. To us. Out loud. That “Canada” line brought down the house.Of course that line is an amusing throwaway, but it has a germ of truth at least when it comes to national self-perception. Vowell’s reading at the festival was followed by a lengthy conversation with writer and broadcaster Ian Brown who suggested that America sees itself on a journey, following a visionary course – a destiny, while we Canadians are more concerned with “whether we have enough parsnips in the basement” to get through the long winter.In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell frequently breaks the narrative to offer some trenchant opinions of how the two halves of the Winthrop sermon have grown further apart over the centuries. For all their rousing talk of America as a beacon on a hill, many leaders have overlooked the more modest ideals that could be drawn from the same sermon. Vowell takes a mallet and smashes the rose-colored glasses through which many people have been gazing back at Ronald Reagan’s terms in office. One of the most vocal co-opters of the “city-on-a-hill” mantra, Reagan’s eloquent Winthropian language and his grandfatherly demeanor masks the treatment (or rather, neglect) of the already-marginalized in America during his watch.A ray of hope, though. The book was written, and the reading was given, before the recent election. Which changes things, I think, as President-elect Obama seems, in these transitional days anyway, to be that rarest of things – a leader who combines reason and pragmatism and a sense of a community pulling together, with spirited language and an inspiring delivery. The beacon on a hill appears to be shining a bit more brightly.Some other Sarah Vowell-isms from the interview:On the almighty buck: At one point interviewer Ian Brown reached for a bottle of water, took a swig, and then uttered the name of the brand. To which Vowell jokingly chided Brown for giving the bottler an unsolicited, unpaid plug, saying “you Canadians will just give it away for free.”On her preoccupation with subcultures: Vowell admitted her lifelong obsession with groups, the more unruly the better. From Goths to Puritans, she’s fascinated by their habits whether that means wearing too much make-up or spreading salvation in colonial Massachusetts.On why U.S. history is more far more interesting than Canadian history: “Canadians are superior human beings,” Vowell said (to huge applause), adding: “and thus nothing ever happens.”On restraint: “I have a policy where I’m trying not to swear,” Vowell told us, “and I open the newspaper in the morning and I’m like a gangsta rapper who stubbed his toe.”On the separation of church and state: “It’s on the books,” Vowell assured us, all the while frustrated that vocal and sometimes powerful groups try to pretend that it’s not.On research: Vowell spent ages sifting through volume after volume of admittedly dull Puritan writing. “I do quote from the juicier bits of Puritan writing for you… and you’re welcome.”On Jon Stewart: Vowell, in addition to her books and contributions to This American Life on NPR, is a frequent guest on the hip late-night circuit, particularly The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She was asked what he was really like. “A six-foot-tall black man,” Vowell quipped. And I thought the camera just added ten pounds! On a serious note, Vowell said that Stewart’s humor is derived from a core of sadness, of frustration with misuse of power.On Pixar: Vowell also made a lasting impression as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. She has a high regard for Pixar, and applauds the animation studio for using “every aspect of the medium for meaning.”On superheroes and their powers: During the Q and A, Vowell was asked by an audience member what her ideal superpower would be. To which she replied: “Always being well-rested.”On meeting me: While waiting in line to have Vowell sign my copy of her latest book, an organizer worked her way through the queue writing each of our names in big block letters on a little yellow post-it notes and sticking them in the books, at the proper spot. When I found myself in front of Sarah Vowell, after exchanging pleasantries, she looked at my name, and, stunned by the unprecedented and unexpected number of Andrews ahead of me in the line, she asked: “Do all Canadians name their sons Andrew?”. We both laughed. “I guess there’s a lot of us,” I quipped, adding: “And I wasn’t even born here!” We both tossed our heads back and laughed some more. She then added, without missing a beat, “But you fit right in.”
Laura is on the far left; Jenna is third from the right.
I routinely refer to my childhood friend Jenna Le, now a physician, poet, and literary translator, as the smartest person I’ve ever known. Jenna and I were both friends and rivals on the Minnesota spelling bee circuit from 1995-98, when we were 11-14 years old. Eventually we both grew up to be writers, publishing our first books — her book of poems, Six Rivers, and my YA novel, Sister Mischief — within months of each other in 2011. Jenna’s poems have also appeared in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and she received her B.A. in math from Harvard and her M.D. from Columbia.
Last Thursday night, in Washington, D.C., Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old boy from Bayside, Queens, beat 280 other contenders to win the 86th annual National Spelling Bee. The Bee is a multi-stage event that begins with classroom spell-offs in tens of thousands of elementary and junior high schools each winter, and culminates each May in a televised showdown in which contestants fidget and sweat and stammer their way toward a prize of $30,000 and national fame. On this occasion, Jenna and I mutually reflected on our bee experiences and found them to be deeply embroiled with race, class, gender, competition, achievement, and the American Dream.
JL: Hi, Laura! Thanks so much for coming up with the idea of having this conversation about spelling bees: what they mean to us personally as former spelling bee competitors and what they have to do the larger questions of language, identity, race, gender, and (dare I say it?) the American dream.
The first time my older sister Mina competed in a spelling bee, she was a fifth-grader, and I was a second-grader, sitting restlessly between my parents in the audience. It was the ’90s, and Mina and I were among a handful of nonwhite students enrolled in our ritzy suburban Minnesota elementary school. Flanked by my Vietnamese immigrant parents, I shuddered as hundreds of alien-sounding words winged over my head. “Lasagna”? A food that I, raised on rice- and fish-sauce-based dishes, had never tasted. “Yacht”? A type of boat I had never seen.
To everyone’s surprise, my sister won that bee, and the next one, and the next. My parents’ nervousness quickly gave way to hard-bitten pride. Overnight, the winning of spelling bees became a key component of our family identity, the yacht we never had. My sister’s bee victories were a tangible family asset, something my mother could use as collateral when she marched off to parent-teacher conferences, determined to convince the skeptical teachers that an Asian immigrant family was as well worth betting on as a white one.
My sister’s streak of bee triumphs culminated in a first-place finish at the 1995 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Beaming, she appeared on TV and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Sporting enormous glasses and an equally humongous pink bow in her hair, her face smiled benignly from the front page of Asian American Press, a free newspaper distributed in local Asian supermarkets.
At age 9, I was well aware that my parents had high hopes for me to carry on my sister’s bee-winning legacy. I resisted, though. Poring over blurrily Xeroxed lists of alphabetized words in my room all summer ignited a rankling impatience in my gut. I was a typical preadolescent, overflowing with messy emotions, and preparing for these emotionally dry and existentially meaningless contests struck me as a waste of time. I preferred to immerse myself in the dark world of Charlotte Bronte novels, reading those heartrendingly romantic dialogues again and again until my lacrimal glands spilled over. I preferred to bask in the colorful language of the movie reviews in the Star Tribune and imagine the faraway day when I would be the heroine of my own life.
My first bee was a disaster: misspelling the word “maneuver,” I shuffled back to my seat in ignominy. The following year, I stumbled on “dilute.” The year after that, the word “flourishes” undid me.
Mina, now 16, had just started applying to colleges. Watching her assemble her application, it began to dawn on me how high the stakes were. Spelling bee victories led to college acceptances, which in turn led to a new life, a life far removed from this cloistered suburban world where parents’ and teachers’ and peers’ approval meant everything. Bolstered by this secret knowledge, I rallied.
The 1998 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Only five competitors remain on stage, including me. I approach the microphone and listen for my assigned word: “nascence.”
The word is new to me (it means “birth”). It is months before I will write my first poem and realize I was meant to be a poet. Years before I will discover the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. A decade before I will move to Manhattan and read Millay’s greatest poem, “Renascence,” for the first time.
I fumble it. It’s a clear-cut defeat, but it’s also an escape, a leap into freedom, a birth. I am born, so that I can be reborn.
LG: While there seems to have been, resultant of Mina’s success, an expectation that you would both participate in and succeed at bees, I remember my entrance to them as much less inevitable. At the beginning, in 5th grade, I remember being surprised to discover I was good at spelling. I wasn’t studying, but I kept winning — first the class, then the school, then I placed at the district level and went to regionals (where Mina thoroughly trounced me — that was the year she went to nationals). I was shocked to have made it that far. Unlike you, books were my only siblings, but like you, I loved Gothic novels; Jane Eyre, that lost and lonely only child, has saved my life once or twice. For me, the bees were entirely involved with my obsession with reading — I drilled on the word lists some, but halfheartedly, and I think whatever spelling talent I had was just derived from reading and reading and collecting all the new words I could find. As a combined result of books and bees, there’s a lot of words I knew how to define and spell without having any idea how to pronounce them, and in that way, I think the bees quite literally helped me to find my voice.
For me, the bees represented a similar moment of feeling visible for the first time, which I wasn’t sure how to feel about then. When I went to the regional bee, my elementary school put a notice about it on the sign outside, and driving by it on my way to school every day was simultaneously the proudest and most embarrassed I’ve ever felt. My identity had suddenly been cast for me — Smart Girl — in a way that guaranteed my placement on an elite track that eventually led to a lot of good things, but that also guaranteed a social alienation that, accompanied by my glasses and braces and gangly exploding limbs, definitely threw me off for a number of years.
There is so much in the connection you draw from bees to college that I relate to. This was a primary concern of my novel Sister Mischief — the exalting of college as the great escape, the destination where we could all suddenly, miraculously be free to be you and me, and the resultant positioning of achievement itself as escape. It reminds me of the root of the word “ecstasy,” the Greek ekstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. That was how I felt every time I spelled a word right — I got high off the absence of the bell. For a moment, I would stand outside myself in that moment of victory. Then, later, it was how I felt when I got into Columbia. When I published my first book. Winning is a drug; it’s how you learn to claw your way up, however you can.
That said, to hear your first-generation perspective on the significance of the bees is fascinating to me, because for that reason alone the bees’ stakes were higher for you than for me, full stop. There’s just no arguing that point — to your family, to your establishment of identity, to your future, the bees carried an onus that I simply didn’t have to carry, and that feels important to acknowledge here.
That’s a poignant thing to consider when you stand back and look at it — that in all my 12- and 13-year old ignorance, stressing about the next bee, I really had no idea both that the bees didn’t matter as much for me as they did for you, Mina, and every other first-generation kid, and that, due to my parents’ native English-speaking, I had a natural advantage in the lexicon of their competition. That feels like an allegory for how white and Asian kids integrate and relate to each other at large, and to extend it, I’d venture that the Asian American dominance of spelling bees is a dramatic mode of assimilation — a new way to claim the English language, a silver bullet for the college application, an article in the paper. The bee is an emblem of fluency, of literacy, and of tenacity.
So I guess in all these ways, I see spelling bees as this deeply rich microcosm of what America’s stratified, unequal achievement culture is, and a barometer of where the melting pot is at — there’s a really naked kind of competition within bees, and one I find almost grotesquely synecdochic of the American Dream. Gatsby’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues right now, so I’ll ask you this way — do you think the bees are a green light at the end of the dock? Do you think they’re a false flash of promise, or one that panned out for you? Don’t you think you would have gotten into Harvard without them, or do you really think they affected your family’s path in the way they’ve tended to believe?
Also, not to harp on the race point, Jenna, but I’d actually love to hear a little about how your parents came to Minnesota, and Edina specifically (the predominantly white, affluent, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis in which we both grew up, not coincidentally the home of the best public school system in the state).
JL: First, thank you for bringing up the topic of etymologies! I grew up in the no-man’s-land between two languages, English (that kleptomaniac bastard child of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) and Vietnamese (part of the Mon-Khmer language family). So I was always vaguely conscious that etymologies were something worth caring about. It was only when I started competing in the bees that etymologies became a life-or-death matter: being ignorant that “flourish” and “fluorine” have different roots and therefore different spellings caused me to flub my 1997 spelling bee chances, for example. Since then, etymologies are constantly on my mind, and they play a critical role in my present-day work as a poet. Maybe I should thank the spelling bees for that!
“Achievement = escape”: what a neat way of phrasing the traditional conceptualization of the American dream. On their surface, the events that led to my parents settling in Edina, Minnesota, embody and ratify that traditional conceptualization. My parents were Vietnam War refugees: along with millions of others, they fled their country when North Vietnamese troops stormed the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon in 1975.
My parents had one trait many refugees didn’t: they were college-educated. Not only that, they had marketable math and science skills. Because of this, my dad was offered a job in Minnesota. And because their experiences had reinforced their faith in the power of education, my parents chose to resettle in the suburb of Edina so that their children could be educated in Edina’s reputedly excellent public schools.
This is a story I like telling because it’s the story of my family, but I sometimes need to remind myself that it’s the idiosyncratic story of one individual family, and it doesn’t speak to the experiences to many families that were not so lucky as mine: families of all races and ethnicities that are failed every day by the American dream. Being involved in spelling bees as a kid, I got to meet some kids from different backgrounds — kids who’d been subjected to poverty and flat-out racism and all kinds of travails that made them stronger — and that’s probably the most important thing I took away from the whole bee experience.
And yet: writing my first poem when I was 13, going away to math camp when I was 15: those events shaped my life’s trajectory more profoundly than the bees did. I guess I’m more of a Nick Carraway than a Jay Gatsby? I guess you and I both are, being Minnesotans.
I’d love to hear more about how you personally experienced the bees, Laura. We were both born and raised in Edina, but I didn’t really meet you until 10th-grade gym class. I remember seeing this super-tall girl walking around the locker rooms and thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the girl I was always running into in the spelling bees?”
LG: It’s endlessly intriguing to me how two people can remember the same experiences so differently. I’d remembered and kept an eye on you ever since the bees, so your reappearance in high school wasn’t a surprise for me. The way I remember you from high school, after the bees, is a mixture of awe and envy — I could have killed you in AP English for all the 99s you scored on those blue books. I wanted to be the best one in that class so badly, and that role was stalwartly occupied by you. But I could never really be mad about that, because you deserved it, and because I liked and respected — like and respect — you too much. There it is again, that unique blend of competition and camaraderie. I’m developing an overarching theory that women should be less apologetic about their competitive impulses — if we can keep those impulses away from bitterness and destruction, they’re tremendous motivators. Which is to say: it’s always been my privilege even to bat in your league. You keep me striving.
I have a vivid memory I wanted to share with you — when I got knocked out of the regional competition that Mina won (we were in 5th grade, she in 8th, I think I placed 5th or 6th in that bee), I was completely distraught and burst into tears — again, the intense emotionality, the sheer adrenaline of that silent moment before the judge beeped your answer wrong, or said “That is correct.” The word was “gubernatorial,” which I stupidly spelled with a “gouber”; I’d never found it in any of my books before and was completely stumped. Anyway, as I made my way into the audience, your parents came up and comforted and complimented me, and it meant the world to me — I had been so in awe of you and Mina, and at that point we’d all seen each other at so many bees, and that moment made me feel like there was some weird and lovely niche community of us, the awkward clever spellers and the people who produced us, that we were competing against each other but also in it together.
It’s also worth noting that after 5th grade, I had two years of losing bees before I had another winning year, and I was absolutely mortified by losing. With each year I lost, the stakes for winning the next year were raised. We competed at the same state bee in 8th grade, didn’t we? I think I placed 11th that year you placed 5th, and I remember crying harder after that knocking-out than any other one. Once I recovered, I was proud of how I’d placed, but the way it felt when the bottom fell out of that adrenaline surge, and realizing the bees were all over for me — it was painful.
Okay, HOW is it POSSIBLE that we have not brought gender into this yet?! Honestly — I don’t even remember the boys from bees. I only remember noticing the other girls. Did you feel particularly pitted against other girls in the swath of competitors, or what was the gendered aspect of this experience for you? Also, do you feel like there were actually more girls in competition, or is this totally a distortion of my addled memory? (Note: Jenna has ascertained that the competitors in the 2013 Scripps Howard national spelling bee are 52% female and 48% male.)
JL: Well, first, I want to address your theory about competitiveness. I think you’re absolutely correct that spelling bees ultimately amount to a distillation of the idea of competitiveness in its purest (and therefore, from a certain perspective, its silliest) form. Competitiveness in America has such a tangled history. On the one hand, the theory of capitalism, which shaped 20th-century history so profoundly in both my parents’ native Asia and the western world, argues that competitiveness is a force for good. Many of the social phenomena around us, things we take for granted, like the U.S. News and World Report prestige rankings of colleges, have this assumption at their root. And yet, we both know competitiveness can sometimes be destructive: the pain of losing spelling bees taught us so.
In my life, I’ve been involved in quite a few subcultures that are lopsided, gender-wise. The “mathlete” subculture, which more or less consumed my life between the ages of 13 and 21 (I was an undergrad math major before heading to med school), was heavily male-dominated, for instance. In contrast, the gender breakdown of the spelling bees was roughly 50:50, as I recall it. But I’ve noticed that Minnesota women speak with a loudness and confidence virtually unique to their kind, and I wonder if this contributed to your impression that Minnesota females had a more salient presence at the bees than their male counterparts.
LG: I, too, have often found myself the woman in a man’s world, and never more than working in film. (Sidebar: Especially as, like you, the daughter of a woman in science, I’ve always felt as though I somehow betrayed feminism by not being better at math and science. I was good, maybe even better than I thought I was, but I had to TRY, and I didn’t much like that.) I like your analysis of the gender breakdown in the bees, and feel conspicuously identified by your characterization of Minnesota women here. I think that loud confidence you name is embroiled with that singularly Midwestern friendliness that Minnesota is known for — my mother and I both pride ourselves, derivatively of this quality, on being able to talk to anyone. Minnesota women are loud, confident, and most of all, chatty. I’ve never shaken that quality, and it confused the hell out of people when I first moved to New York — the hostile looks I would get as I instinctively made small talk in elevators! I was so oblivious, so naive, but I find that quality to be an asset now — it really disarms the coastal folk.
Since you’ve detailed your family’s role in all this so beautifully, perhaps my own ought to find some relevance here. My mother’s path was very similar to my own in many ways — she grew up in Fargo, even more a place that no one leaves than Minneapolis, and she was a bee kid too. I don’t remember exactly how she placed — somehow I remember she didn’t do quite as well as I eventually did — but she described it to me as a formative experience, and took a lot of pride in my replicating it. Her Midwestern experience was one of getting out by working her way up, too, and her departure from Fargo to Wellesley College, where she became part of that hallowed Seven Sisters 1960s generation that included Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Nora Ephron, was the first time she’d ever traveled by plane. So that paradigm was pret-a-porter for me, that way in which the Midwest becomes a kind of farm league that you swing your way out of if you’ve got the chops, and the bees had already been reified as a key part of it. That American Dream aspect, again.
There’s a passage in Gatsby that always makes me choke up a little in its resonance, that I think describes the immigrant experience so truly. When I say “immigrant” here, I mean it in a regional, class-based, and cultural way, too — not just geographical migration itself, but also class mobility.
I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
That’s who I am and who I always will be — subtly unadaptable to anywhere but that cold place where people chat so warmly. You can swing your way out of the farm leagues, so to speak, but you can’t actually acquire native understanding of anywhere but the place you knew as a child. So looking back, I think the bees were the beginning of something rich and wild and wonderful for me, but also something bittersweet — the idea that through talent, you can ascend to someplace where you can live for years but will never truly belong. That’s an allegory for both your family and mine, and for both you and me.
JL: So true. My whole life, I’ve been drawn to quotations like Theodor Adorno’s “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” and Ezra Pound’s “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” The idea that one can and should dissociate oneself from one’s native turf, coupled with the related idea that the voluntary servitude of love can be an adequate replacement for the knotty bonds of heredity: my poems often flirt with these ideas, these attractive, seductive, quintessentially American ideas. It’s a strong undercurrent in my book, Six Rivers, as well as in the new poems I’m working on now. In the end, however, we can’t escape that harsh truth: we will never fully belong.
Our discussion of female moxie reminds me of a word I think I first encountered in a spelling bee, a word that is virtually obsolete now: “adventuress.” This word, as I’m sure you already know, was once used to label social climbers — female social climbers, in particular. Think about the implications: not so long ago, women like our mothers who tried to improve their social station, women who surged forward to claim their share of the American dream, were slapped with this derogatory label. Isn’t that staggering? And isn’t it a fine thing that spelling bees preserve our country’s social history by never letting us forget that words like this were once in common usage?
By the way, if you haven’t yet, you need to watch the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which profiles eight kids who competed in the 1999 national spelling bee. It’s hilarious: one of the kids who attended the summer math camp I worked at in college (Harry A.) features prominently in it, and he’s a great comedic talent. There’s a somber side to it, too: I recently read an article that investigates what those eight kids are up to now, and it said one of them later struggled with a teen pregnancy while another died in his 20s.
LG: OMG of course I’ve seen Spellbound, have we not ever talked about that film? That would be remarkable. My college friends made me go see it in theaters with them and sat next to me the whole time snickering, “DORK. D-O-R-K,” and then later that night — I think it was that night — we ended up at a gay piano bar in the Village and heard a very rotund tenor with the most heartbreakingly beautiful Broadway voice sing Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a film).” It was one of those nights.
I looked up the article you mentioned and it made me very much want to go back and watch the film again. It’s probably one of my favorite docs of all time. What that movie captures that I love, and that we’re noting here, is the way the bees built a kind of community and haven for all of us terribly awkward smart kids, the way it allowed us to find others like us. It’s a competitive community, but as in any gathering of outcasts, a deeply bonded one, too.
JL: Yes, exactly. I love that entire genre of documentaries, by the way; I was also riveted by the documentaries about the national Scrabble championship (Word Wars) and the national crossword puzzle championship (Wordplay). I considered watching the one about the Tetris nationals, but decided I had to draw the line somewhere.
“The kitchen crew is the armpit of Bread Loaf, you know,” an assistant cook said to several of us who were working with him one morning in the kitchen on the campus where the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is held. I can’t recall what led him to bring up the subject. Maybe he had heard the story about our two dishwashers who had crashed a gathering of women Conference members one evening. “Oh, we’re not writers!” the dishwashers gleefully responded to a question directed to them. “We’re on the kitchen crew!” Later, they raced back to the warren of rooms at the back of the Bread Loaf Inn where the female staff slept, gathered us together, and described how the authors seated around them had sat clutching their glasses of sherry or cups of tea, gaping soundlessly. The writers may have finally gone on to discuss something literary, but that part of the story would have been anti-climactic as far as we were concerned.
Whatever the cook’s reason for offering his armpit observation, it was pretty much lost on us. We would have had to have cared what someone else thought of us for the analogy to mean anything, and we didn’t. We were far too busy having a good time.
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which meets at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, Vermont, will be starting a new session on August 10th. Over the past eighty-six years, thousands of aspiring writers have taken part in what many describe as the country’s premier writers’ gathering. Articles about Bread Loaf usually dwell on the intensity of the experience. Many applicants don’t make the cut in the first place. Those who do get to spend a chunk of their vacation time attending a full schedule of workshops, lectures, and readings while they compete for the attention of faculty members and pretend that they love having their best writing critiqued.
It sounded like a rough way to spend two weeks to those of us working in the Bread Loaf kitchen in the summers of 1973,’74, and ’75.
When describing their time at Bread Loaf, writers often dwell on the beauty of the site, so I guess some of them must get outside or maybe look out a window at least. However, by the time I finished my sophomore year at the University of Vermont and started my temp job as the Bread Loaf pastry girl, I was pretty jaded about the wonders of nature. I grew up in Vermont on what might kindly be referred to as a very small hill farm, and my school bus traveled rural mountain roads every day. For me the magic of the Bread Loaf campus wasn’t the view, but the way the landscape had been domesticated. The array of late nineteenth/early twentieth century buildings that dotted the enormous, carefully maintained meadow didn’t scream wilderness by a long shot. They were more like some very wealthy child’s discarded playhouses, and that’s how my friends on the kitchen crew and I treated them. During our free time, we explored every floor and wing of the Inn and all the dormitories, taking advantage of any opportunity to peer into the paneled or papered bedrooms and the bathrooms filled with primitive plumbing. The Library, the Theater, the Barn that held a lounge and a snack bar, and the pond at the back of the campus were all our territory.
We branched out to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and the Green Mountain State Forest, both close enough so we could hike their ski trails and old roads between our breakfast, lunch, and dinner shifts. Sex and drugs were available for our more adventurous co-workers, but the rest of us had a little Peter Pan thing going on, one in which we ran wild over the Bread Loaf campus and beyond. The place seemed like the summer camps I’d only read about in books, but for grown-ups. Whenever we had enough, we would catch a ride with someone down to Middlebury for shopping and ice cream at Calvi’s during our afternoon breaks.
It was good to be us.
The writers we fed were just our excuse to be at Bread Loaf. The waiters and waitresses coming in and out of our kitchen three times a day were all Conference participants working off some of their tuition and fees. They cared about the literary guests who showed up in the dining room, but no one who really worked in the kitchen was impressed by writers. The professional cooks at the top of our hierarchy may have set the tone for the rest of us. They were permanent Middlebury College food service employees who would go back to the main campus to work in the fall. They knew way too much about the carryings on of academics to feel any awe of some more book people. The baker, my personal supervisor, remembered Robert Frost from back in the day when he’d been associated with Bread Loaf. She made it clear that he was no big deal. The year before I started in the kitchen, a science fiction writer on the faculty did all his laundry and then sun bathed nude on the lawn while he waited for it to go through the wash and dry cycles. This did not go over well with the long-term kitchen staff. I heard about it several times.
Many of the younger, temporary members of the kitchen crew were college students, some from prestigious private schools. Everyone was looking forward to a career, even if in many cases those careers were somewhat vaguely defined. We didn’t see ourselves as being that different from the average Writers’ Conference participants who were also looking forward to careers. We also weren’t much younger than some of them. Our ability to pass among the writers unnoticed made it possible for us to pick up odds and ends of information, and our sense of parity with them led us to feel qualified to comment upon what we heard. The man who had published an article in Playboy…Just one? The young woman who was so happy and hopeful because of the response she’d received to her writing from her assigned faculty member…That was nice, but did it mean any of that work would ever be published? When the rumor came back to the kitchen that a writer had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, we felt badly, but, hey, writing isn’t an easy field to break into.
At the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, even the kitchen crew knew that.
We younger members of the kitchen staff would probably have been more taken with the writers the years I was at Bread Loaf if they had been more like the naked guy I had heard so much about. The same year he had been at the Conference I was told that another writer had attended a dance in the Barn where his gyrations had been “obscenity in motion.” Stories like those led me to have expectations. The writers were very tame while I was there, though. Disappointingly so. I went to some kind of cocktail party once and hung around the fringes of a women-in-literature meeting. Everyone kept their clothes on. No one got up and danced.
I did see John Gardner from my bedroom window once, though. I knelt on my bed and watched him walk up a path toward the Inn’s back door. He was easy to recognize from his photographs because of his long, gray hair, and he was wearing a pullover shirt with full sleeves gathered at the wrists. There was a man who knew how to look like a writer.
I also went to hear Lore Segal speak in the Theater one evening. How that came about is a total mystery to me, because while she is a highly regarded novelist, short story writer, essayist, and teacher, I had never heard of her then. My only recollection of the event is that Segal had dark hair. What makes the incident notable to me is what happened years later. After I started publishing children’s fiction in the 1980s, I learned that Lore Segal is also a children’s writer. Was that what she was talking about that night? If I were listening to her speak now, I would probably be taking notes.
I appear to have been remarkably uninformed about contemporary writers when I was young, especially considering that I was an English major. But I’ve no doubt that that obliviousness contributed to my enjoyment of my time at Bread Loaf.
One day at dinner, the waiters and waitresses returned to the kitchen after their first foray into the dining room with news.
“Anne Sexton is here!”
“Anne Sexton is here!”
“Have you heard? Anne Sexton is here!”
They were truly thrilled, like kids who had caught a glimpse of Santa. It was fun to see how eager they were to pass on their information to someone, anyone they could get close to. While the meal was being served, the story came out. Maxine Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet I had never heard of, was at Bread Loaf that summer. Anne Sexton, also a Pulitzer Prize winner I knew nothing about, had come to visit her.
“And she’s going to do a reading. Tonight!”
That evening, while Anne Sexton was giving her reading to what I am sure was a standing room only crowd, my friends and I went swimming. We had a good time. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
I’ve been to a few writers’ conferences, myself, over the years. Not many, though, because I don’t enjoy them very much. What I really prefer are salon-like gatherings that last maybe three hours or so. Coincidentally, that’s about how long my work shifts were in the Bread Loaf kitchen. My longest bout at a conference was a three-day event at which I served on the faculty. It was held in a woodsy, though somewhat flat for my tastes, venue in Rhode Island. I brought some walking shoes and a camera, expecting to get out on the trails at least once. I managed to sneak out for a little while during lunch on Saturday, but otherwise it was all presentations and panel discussions and critique groups all the time. It was like…work.
That’s writers for you.
For many years after I left Bread Loaf for good, I would have these frustrating dreams of returning to the Inn that dominates that campus. In them I was never looking for a second chance to hear Anne Sexton read. I was always trying to return to the back of the old building, to the kitchen with its network of high-ceilinged rooms — the pantry where I washed fruit for dessert, the bakery with its blackened bread and muffin pans, the narrow chamber with the long table where my friends and I ate our meals together.
The dreams suddenly stopped around the time I began to publish regularly. My dreams are almost always easy to interpret, but how do you work out the meaning of a dream’s absence? In this case, it was easy, too. The old subconscious recognized that the moment I signed that first book contract a door slammed shut. There would be no going back to the Bread Loaf I had known, because, unless they were carrying trays, writers were never allowed in the kitchen.
Image credit: Gail Gauthier (author)