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When I decided to take the plunge last year, at the age of 27, from relative literary isolation into the comparative security of graduate school, I had mixed feelings. I had always struggled with academic institutions, sleepwalking through high school, saved by a natural aptitude for writing, and attending three colleges before completing my bachelor’s degree. I was familiar with the myriad criticisms of MFA programs, too, from their promotion of a “house style” to their failure to provide graduates with tangible benefits or skills.

And yet I wasn’t sure what else to do.

In the five years after finishing college, I worked in coffee shops, labored as a caregiver for people with disabilities, interned on an organic farm, and scored one well-paid but temporary gig organizing workers for a union. (I also went through a substantial period of unemployment.) This kind of haphazard, improvisational approach to bread-winning is common enough for creative people, and one that I embraced throughout my twenties. But as 30 inched closer I found myself beginning to think in previously unimaginable terms. What if I wanted to have a family? What work was I qualified to do that would provide even a lower-middle-class income, not to mention health insurance?  Hence the MFA.

Despite the various claims made by detractors, these programs do offer the possibility of certain real-world competencies, namely how to teach creative writing. They also confer a credential in the terminal academic degree. Perhaps most appealingly—for me, anyway—they ground their students in literature. As a relative autodidact who had learned about books mostly by squatting in coffee shops and one-bedroom apartments, I yearned for such grounding. There were holes in my literary education that I felt an MFA could help me fill.

***

While enduring my succession of low-wage jobs, I had published critical and creative essays at a range of online venues.  I also wrote poetry—mostly self-published—but poetry nonetheless. For my degree, however, I chose to study fiction. As a longtime reader of literary fiction, I had become increasingly intrigued by a form that allowed one to transcend his own personal experiences, to inhabit disparate points of view. And as the graduate of a multicultural inner city high school largely stratified along lines of race and class, an individual of Italian and Jewish descent who is often misapprehended as Mexican, and the romantic partner of a mixed race Korean-American woman, I had long been interested in questions of social difference. Fiction, I felt, offered profound opportunities for such imagining. I wanted to explore those questions of identity that had confronted me since I was a child.

What I didn’t entirely understand was that race can be a particularly touchy subject within the literary community. Perhaps this is because the community is so overwhelmingly white. Last year, for The Rumpus, the author Roxane Gay analyzed the literary sections of The New York Times. She found that of the 742 books reviewed by the Times in 2011, about 90 percent of their authors were white—compared with 72 percent of the American population at large. I haven’t been able to find a parallel study of MFA programs, but anecdotal evidence seems to tell a similar tale. In my own program, every student but one is white. A black friend of mine who went through an MFA program told me how uncomfortable he was with the racial homogeneity he encountered there. And a white friend who completed a different program told me she was once advised by a professor not to address race, lest her stories strike some readers as “too controversial.”

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when a story I brought into class about a young, mixed-race man struggling with his racial identity in my hometown of Seattle was met with harsh resistance.

“Maybe you should write about something you know,” one student snarled a few minutes into the discussion. Others seemed baffled by my protagonist’s preoccupation with race. The term “post-racial” was used—yearningly, I thought.

A few weeks later, I brought another story into class about a white kid playing basketball in a predominantly black environment. On the surface, this effort was more squarely autobiographical—I play a lot of basketball on “black courts”—and so, I presumed, it would be less problematic. Not so. This time my accusers castigated me for trafficking in negative stereotypes and exoticizing black culture.

I was stunned. I had expected my classmates to be sympathetic toward the issues I was trying to raise, perhaps even reflective about their own experiences navigating a multiracial society. Instead, they were by turns non-participatory and hostile. It was as if I had set something foul down in the center of the room.

Admittedly, I was trying to execute a delicate maneuver in both stories. In the first, I tread the line between empathic literary performance and cultural appropriation. In the second, I skirt the boundary between authentic social reality and troubling racial clichés. Even if I had managed to stay on the right side of those lines (which I believe I did), such stories were bound to make some people uncomfortable.

Discomfort, however, is not always a bad thing. Race is an incontrovertible aspect of the American reality; it needs to be talked about, argued over, debated, and discussed—especially within the literary community. If we as writers want the general public to take our work seriously, we need to be prepared to engage with any number of live wires—social, political, historical, and psychological among them. By choosing to avoid race—by unconsciously rendering the subject off-limits because of the discomfort it may provoke—the literary community runs the risk of isolating itself. More critically, though, it threatens to exclude those for whom the discussion is vital and integral, not just optional or academic.

So I don’t regret writing those stories. I plan to write more. As a straight, white, educated male, I feel an imperative to imagine the experiences of people who inhabit different bodies than I do. As a fiction writer, I feel compelled to write about them. Imagining other people’s lives. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to be all about?

***

“Let’s face it: literary fiction is fucking boring,” J. Robert Lennon wrote recently in an editorial for Salon. I don’t agree with that sentiment—there is much being published now that excites me, and the bulk of contemporary fiction I have not read at all. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a twinge of recognition. Most of what I read in contemporary literary magazines, especially those produced on college campuses, does feel curiously insular and esoteric, removed from the lives of people without MFAs. (I’m reminded of the African-American clothing brand FUBU—For Us, By Us.) It also feels hyper-educated, suburban or rural in origin, and culturally very white.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the contemporary zeitgeist, but I do know that the country is getting more urban and racially mixed. If literary culture wants to connect with a broader audience, I suspect it would do well to encourage stories from, about, and for not just educated white people who live outside of city centers (or, conversely, inside the five boroughs of New York).  Rather than resist diversification, we should embrace it wholeheartedly.  And those of us who come from racial privilege should be challenged to think and imagine and investigate—and eventually, should the spirit move us, write—across borders that may often feel impermeable.

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Image credit: Kara Walker, “The Rich Soil Down There,” (2002).

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Alex Gallo-Brown ALEX GALLO-BROWN is the author of The Language of Grief, a collection of poems. His essays have appeared at Salon, The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Brooklyn Rail, and more. You can find him at www.alexgallobrown.com.

31 Responses to “Race in the Land of MFA”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    You plan to write more? Please do. I’m completely with you on this — imagining other people’s lives when they’re not very different from you isn’t very interesting to me. It’s true that when I was younger (a long time ago) I thought that reading about somebody approximately like me was pretty cool. But that passed.

    I write about people of a very different culture and place (rainforest tribespeople in the Pacific) and although I don’t bump into the same kinds of criticisms you did, I’m sometime floored by how many listeners at my readings firmly believe they know all about tribal people. And they’re almost always wrong.

    A woman came up to me after one reading I did — first-person narrative in the voice of a twenty-something mother — and said to me, “Your character wouldn’t have said “a big and complex thing.” I hardly knew what to say. I hadn’t prefaced my reading by saying that I’d lived with these people for years, spoke their language, knew their culture, and I could only suppose that she thought her vision of tribespeople was more accurate than mine. I could only sputter, “that’s an easy thing to say in their language,” but I don’t think it did the trick. I wasn’t after an argument but in retrospect I should have gone on at least to ask her if she thought she knew something about these people that I didn’t.

    Anyway, fight the good fight. Writing about the “other” is pretty damn cool and although it takes a lot of work, certainly it can be done.

  2. Jesse Walters says:

    As a graduate from a respectable creative writing program, I find this article’s argument to be highly specious. It’s easy to presume that a workshop’s lack of warm reception to one’s work when it deals overtly with race is because of insensitivity or even racism, but the entire purpose of a writing program’s workshop is to create an environment of criticism and discussion for one’s work, regardless of the work’s subject matter. The presumption, if there is one to be had, is that Mr. Gallo-Brown’s writing needs improvement, and he is there to receive feedback upon it. Maybe his protagonists (since he identifies as having invented one and based another autobiographically upon himself) were poorly drawn characters, and that was the linking factor rather than race? Or maybe he just doesn’t yet know how to write fiction about race very well?

    There’s another terrible trend in MFA programs where apprentice writers have political or social axes to grind in their work, and because of their righteous belief in the subject matter, they believe themselves to be above any criticism other than accolades because, for instance, they make their audience “reflective about their own experiences navigating a multiracial society.” An MFA program is doing its job, and doing it well, when it disabuses all such apprentice writers, whether right or left leaning, of the unassailable correctness and importance of their subject matter and instead teach them to say whatever it is they want to say, in a way that is appealing to a wide audience.

    The contextualization leading into this whole description is one of clear justification and self-glorification attempting to paint the author as a knowledgeable and sympathetic character of both race and class, confronted by the cruel hypocrisy of a homogenized ivory tower who rejects him for wanting to draw their attention to the important subject of race. Shame on them. I don’t doubt there are departments like that, but if this author were a better writer he would know something about presenting himself as a whole, sympathetic person, one capable of mistakes and misunderstandings, and not one so clearly butthurt because other people didn’t get what he was trying to do in his fiction. Roxane Gay is a perfect example of a writer who consistently and amazingly produces fiction and essays dealing with race today and confronting contemporary racial prejudices. But she also is a strong enough writer to present herself and her characters as whole and complex people, flawed and even clueless, because in the end we are all guilty, all of us, and we all are in need of some forgiveness. Perhaps if Mr. Gallo-Brown applies himself more to his writing, and to the ways that he can improve and grow as a writer of fiction (maybe listen to those hard critiques, especially because they may sting), he could one day be a writer of Gay’s caliber. But for now, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to respond to his fiction in that program, when this essay is in such dire need of workshopping.

    • Elizabeth Gundersen says:

      i don’t normally comment on blogs but i feel like jesse’s comment is a huge angry overreaction.

      truth is, none of us know how “good” alex’s fiction is — we haven’t read it. so to make assumptions about its quality seems silly.

      jesse is right that sometimes in MFA writers have axes to grind, and they mistake critiques of their work for gross insensitivity to social injustice, etc. but how do we know if this is the case with alex? we should get to read his fiction first, i think, at the very least, before we lash out and condemn.

      all he really seems to be saying — the big take-away for me — is that writers — and, yes, aspiring writers in MFA programs — should allow themselves the creative freedom to write about race. and moreover, to write about racial experiences that fall outside their own. and they shouldn’t be smacked down for the attempt.

      there seems to be less tolerance for this kind of work is what (i think) alex is saying. a writer could bring a half-cooked story into workshop that *doesn’t* deal with race, and it would likely be treated more kindly than one that does.

      damn…it’s a hard thing to talk about. i think that’s why so many people avoid it. so kudos to alex for broaching the subject and trying to get a conversation started about it.

  3. An "Accuser" says:

    As a member of this graduate workshop who attended both the sessions referenced in this essay, my experience was different.

    Alex Gallo-Brown writes that “[his] accusers castigated [him] for trafficking in negative stereotypes and exoticizing black culture” when he turned in his third workshop submission this past spring. By his own admission, Gallo-Brown tackled a highly controversial topic, and when his handling of that topic was met with criticism, Gallo-Brown responded with an essay in which he reduced dozens of comments into one monolithic reaction to his treatment of race. Given his opinion that “[d]iscomfort…is not always a bad thing” and that “race…needs to be talked about, argued over, debated, and discussed—especially within the literary community,” I wonder what exactly constitutes “debate” for Gallo-Brown on this topic. Although he valorizes debate in his essay, Gallo-Brown appears to be as uncomfortable with opposition as he accuses his classmates (i.e. his so-called “accusers”) to be.

    In his version of the conversation that took place during one of his workshop sessions, Gallo-Brown asserts that his classmates “were by turns non-participatory and hostile.” It seems that there was simply no correct way to respond to these stories except to praise them—students who criticized the story apparently “snarled” their remarks, while those of us who remained silent were labeled “non-participatory.” As one of the students who spoke little during that workshop session (largely due to Gallo-Brown’s penchant for interrupting students who offered critique), my silence was not intended as a statement on my discomfort with conversations about race; it was merely a reflection of my unwillingness to discuss such topics with someone who has already made up his mind on my positioning should I disagree with him.

    Gallo-Brown writes that he “had become increasingly intrigued by a form that allowed one to transcend his own personal experiences, to inhabit disparate points of view.” He later goes on to say that he “expected [his] classmates to be sympathetic toward the issues [he] was trying to raise [in his stories], perhaps even reflective about their own experiences navigating a multiracial society,” which ignores the difference between our response to his handling of race in his stories and a conversation about race in general (which is, of course, not the point of a fiction workshop). I find both comments troubling, because they presume that we are uncomfortable with examining race; furthermore, they fail to address the fact that students other than Gallo-Brown did, in fact, submit fiction whose characters’ backgrounds differed from those of their authors. This year’s workshop submissions crossed lines of race, gender, ethnicity, language, sexual identity, socio-economic status, and education level, among others. Students set their stories in the United States, Turkey, Japan, and Mexico. It is misleading to imply that students were uninterested in exploring characters different from them.

    I find Gallo-Brown’s assertions problematic for another reason: given that Gallo-Brown only submitted stories this past year whose protagonists were straight and male, by his own logic he arguably failed to “transcend his own personal experiences” with regard to gender and sexual identity. Although Gallo-Brown writes that he “had long been interested in questions of social difference” and that “[f]iction…offered profound opportunities for such imagining,” his interest in difference is apparently limited to race. Gallo-Brown claims to “feel an imperative to imagine the experiences of people who inhabit different bodies” than he does, but I wonder why this stops at race. If we apply Gallo-Brown’s own suggestion that transcendence is the cornerstone of good fiction (indeed, “what literature is supposed to be all about”), are we to conclude that Gallo-Brown’s dearth of queer and female characters signifies heterosexism and misogyny, for example? Although I found queer characters to be absent and female characters to be vacuous in Gallo-Brown’s fiction, I would argue no. I don’t think any individual writer is qualified to pin down what the project of literary fiction is or ought to be, least of all Gallo-Brown—a male writer from Seattle who mostly writes about other males from Seattle. Thus, it is not fair to criticize writers who fictionalize their own experiences—indeed, Gallo-Brown admits he writes autobiographical fiction.

    In what is perhaps the most disquieting defense of his position, Gallo-Brown says, “I brought another story into class about a white kid playing basketball in a predominantly black environment. On the surface, this effort was more squarely autobiographical—I play a lot of basketball on ‘black courts’—and so, I presumed, it would be less problematic. Not so.” Here we have arrived at the most troubling argument yet: in essence, readers are to believe in the realities of Gallo-Brown’s fictional world because they reflect the perceived realities of Gallo-Brown’s actual world. For someone so inclined to praise discussion, controversy, and nuance, Gallo-Brown demonstrates little interest in discovering such nuances.

    Gallo-Brown believes he “managed to stay on the right side of [the boundary] lines” regarding the “authentic social reality and troubling racial clichés.” Having read his work, I disagree. More importantly, however, I am disturbed that Gallo-Brown turns to a public forum on which he vilifies the ten people who took the time to read and respond to his stories BEFORE he turns to his own work to examine how he can make the fiction speak for itself.

  4. Matt Sailor says:

    I have just graduated from the writing program at Georgia State University, which is the program that Alex goes to, and where these workshops took place. Probably wisely, he or the editors chose not to name the program. I say wisely, because Alex has (either deliberately, or out of laziness or denseness, I’m not sure) misrepresented a lot about what that program is like. I don’t really want to wade into the larger question of whether workshops have a race problem. I think a case could be made; I don’t think Alex makes that case in a fair way, as he is using GSU as a straw man, something that those of us who teach the school’s 59% non-white student body urge our students not to engage in, as it cheapens and degrades potentially interesting topics. So, I write here only to set the record straight on what are some of the more glaring factual inaccuracies and general mischaracterizations that Alex makes about the program at Georgia State.

    Much of what Alex asserts here about the way that the workshops played out is misleading, and in some cases is simply inaccurate. The way he describes the makeup of the workshop is also patently untrue. While I understand that small literary magazines have a different standard than say, newspapers or other publications, I do think that all publications have an obligation to do some semblance of fact checking. If that doesn’t take the form of a formal fact check…then some critical editing of the states facts in the essay is warranted. Hiding behind the dubious cloak of the personal essay to shrug away this obligation seems problematic to me, to say the least. I’m not even going to go into how I think Alex has overreacted here, using accusations of discrimination to avoid looking critically at his own work (although I could say a lot about that, too). What I would like to do is point out some of the more glaring lies about this piece, and urge The Nervous Breakdown to be more responsible in choosing the content it publishes in the future. Sure, nobody is going to sue a small online lit mag for libel. But, is that any reason to cut corners when it comes to journalistic integrity?

    “In my own program, every student but one is white.” –This is not true. It would be sinking to Alex’s level to provide a roll call of the people of color in the program. But, suffice to say he hasn’t made an effort to meet the people of color in the fiction or poetry program. That, or he has decided to pretend they don’t exist in order to prove his point. It’s possible Alex is referring to the makeup of the specific workshop class, in which there was one non-white woman and a woman from Albania (whom I suppose he puts in the same big basket of ignorant whiteness as me, some dude from Michigan).

    “The term “post-racial” was used—yearningly, I thought.”–I don’t know whether Alex is deliberately mischaracterizing this, or whether he is simply so utterly humorless that it went over his head, but I remember this comment distinctly. I remember who said it, and it was very clear in the context that “post-racial” was used, not yearningly, but sarcastically. I don’t think any thinking person considers our society post-racial, and I know for a fact that the person Alex doesn’t name absolutely does not.

    I would also disagree that the tone of these workshops was hostile. As Alex had never participated in a fiction workshop prior to this academic year, he seemed to me to be a person who was intimidated by the process, not quite able to tell the difference between criticism of deeply flawed work and attack. As Alex admits in the essay, he never wrote much fiction before this semester. As someone who had a story absolutely savaged earlier in that same workshop earlier in the semester, I understand that it can be difficult to have your work critiqued so harshly. But that doesn’t mean that Alex’s colleagues are racists, or that they aren’t sympathetic to his concerns, or that MFAs have a race problem (which, again, they might–but Alex’s workshop isn’t evidence of that). It means that Alex didn’t successfully express those concerns in the highly structured form of art that is fiction.

    I’m glad that Alex has found an outlet for his anger. But, that’s no excuse for publishing inaccuracies and lies in a forum that is supposed to encourage thought and creativity.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      As you say, Matt, the program is nowhere named — and it doesn’t show up in the links Alex provided, either.

      So your criticisms about fact-checking — and little digs at TNB — really don’t have a foundation. It would be a strange legal world if a writer who names no names, no program, not even a region of the country — indeed gives no clues whatsoever as to the setting of the incidents he’s writing about or the identities of anybody else involved — could be accused of libel.

      I wouldn’t think of quarreling with your account of what happened. You were there; I wasn’t.

      And similarly, I have no opinion as to the quality of Alex’s work, although as I said in my earlier comment, I strongly believe that the kind of work he reports having produced ought to be encouraged. Of course that’s a different matter.

      You outed yourself, Matt, and the program, and so did Jesse. Alex didn’t.

      I’m glad you both did, because this is getting pretty interesting to me, a guy whose life’s work has involved assessing conflicting narratives of events that played out in the past (sometimes the very distant past).

      If I were you, I’d lay off the libel/fact checking/”different standard” business. It wasn’t an issue. Now, I suppose it is — but that’s not Alex’s fault.

      And yeah, although it’s irrelevant, I too have had stuff savaged — not just fiction and poetry, but academic works. It does take some getting used to.

      • Matt Sailor says:

        Certainly the essay doesn’t actually constitute libel, as you claim. However, I couldn’t stand by and let Alex misrepresent the workshop dynamic of a program I got a lot out of, and full of people I respect. He doesn’t name it, but all one would have to do is do a quick Google search (or go to Alex’s short story previously published on TNB) to find out that Georgia State is the program being accused. I don’t think those accusations are fair or valid. So I had to speak up. I don’t think it not being libel is an excuse for TNB to publish something that is dishonest, though. But that’s just me.

    • I too am a recent graduate of the GSU MFA program in creative writing, but in poetry. I’ve never done an actual demographic survey of our graduate students, and maybe we could be more diverse, I’m not sure, but I can say that as a non-traditional student (I’m about twenty years older than the average grad student), I have felt included and accepted at GSU. My poems have often been about motherhood, raising children, falling in and out of love with spouses, in effect, the vagaries of living a long time. My peers were very supportive of my themes. One of the concepts the GSU workshop taught me was that we were writing poems, not autobiography. Most writers I encountered were using their imaginations.

    • Anon says:

      Matt,

      You have proven, yet again, that you are a complete and utter idiot. Mr. Gallo-Brown did not reveal the MFA program for legal reasons and it wasn’t actually pertinent to the conversation he was trying to initiate. This is a problem in MFA programs. I went to a school actually HAD this problem.

      Does the school that Mr. Gallo-Brown attend have these issues? No. It does not. I disagree with him there. But to call out the program? That’s petty, immature, and downright stupid. But I wouldn’t put it past you to do something like this. It’s low, even for you (and I know for a fact you’ve done low).

      I also know from experience that you DO NOT have the ability to handle criticism either. So perhaps you should reflect on your own inabilities as a writer and human being before you start pointing fingers at someone else. Good luck finding a job with your MFA and your thin skin. Let’s see how well that works out for you.

      You, however, mucked things up. Again. For SHAME calling out the program. For SHAME.

      Good riddance. I’m glad you’re finally gone. It’s time to repair the swath of destruction you’ve left our department.

      • Matt Sailor says:

        Hey Anonymous,
        It takes a lot of courage to insult me anonymously on the internet months after everyone has stopped reading the comment thread. Bravo, pal. This amount of bitterness makes it pretty easy to guess who you are, though. Hope you’re doing well. If you have things to say, at least stand by them with your name. Pathetic.

  5. Jenna says:

    I’m glad that the important topic of “race in the land of MFA” finally got broached, (although, as the above commenters have pointed out, this essay was perhaps not the ideal way to jump-start that conversation).

    Alex begins his critique of the status-quo by remarking on how “overwhelmingly white” the MFA landscape is. Based on my own personal experiences, I am inclined to agree with Alex’s claim that nonwhite people are markedly underrepresented in MFA programs (although I’m interested in seeing numbers/statistics to confirm this). Because come on—does anyone who has seen the inside of an MFA program seriously believe that what they’re seeing is a representational cross-section of America’s youth, racially speaking?

    …That’s all well and good, but then the conclusion of Alex’s critique seems to be: “white MFA students like me should be allowed to write freely about race.” While I don’t disagree with this statement, it totally ignores the bigger issue that was raised at the beginning of the critique: namely, the relative absence of nonwhite people in MFA classrooms. Hey, why don’t we focus more energy on encouraging MFA programs to recruit more students of color? Then these workshop conversations about whether a story like Alex’s story about “black courts” is stereotypical or true will ACTUALLY HAVE BLACK VOICES PARTICIPATING IN THEM. Wouldn’t that be the most common-sense way of approaching these questions?

    • Matt Sailor says:

      Jenna is dead on, here. Absolutely.

    • Juliette says:

      I like Alex’s idea, but I also TOTALLY AGREE with Jenna here. One doesn’t have to negate the other, though. I also think that as readers, the onus is also on us to seek out, attend to, and *demand* work by folks who are different from us, whatever those differences are.

  6. Diya says:

    As a poet in Gallo-Brown’s program who has not been in the fiction workshops, but who has heard the man speak and has read, dumbfounded, the referenced workshop pieces, I feel I have the right to chime in here with “Accuser” and Matt in saying that the problems with those pieces lie not in the workshop’s comfort level in dealing with race, but with the author’s naïve, reductive, OFFENSIVE (and I say this as a person of color) approach to race. Gallo-Brown’s approach essentially boils down to exoticism and fetishization. Please spare me the noble savage piece. People of color don’t need to be approached on “their own level” — on the basketball court, in barber shops geared toward African American hair — in order to be interacted with. You know how to “connect” with a person of color? One of us gets on the elevator and you say “Oh hey, what’s up? How was your day?”

    Admittedly, I am Indian — not as othered in the “ivory” (yes, MFA programs are super white) tower as African Americans. But despite the fact that my experience — food, language, religion — is SO MUCH more radically different from white experience than African American experience, Gallo-Brown would never think to approach me “on my terms” as he approached African Americans “on their terms” in his stories. Just because you’re a liberal person dealing with race doesn’t mean you’re doing it well. Bad writing is bad writing, and Alex — I can tell you from conversation — has a problem with being contradicted, whether you’re talking about race, Amazon.com, or public transportation. He seems someone who firmly believes that because he is The Most Liberal Person in his esteem, he is The Only Correct Person at all times, and that’s just not true. His attitude toward race in these stories — and I’ll say that my response was more one of humor (he is hilariously dense about race) than of hurt — kind of hurt my feelings as a person of color. Just another reminder than when some (many? most? especially problematic, personally, as a post-9/11 Indian in an admittedly racially insensitive — though I’ll desperately love it till I draw my last breath — south) white people look at me, they see an Otherness rather than a human being. I’m not saying post-racialism is a societal thing, but I hope to at least be seen primarily as a human being by my colleagues.

    I understand that editors at smaller locales like The Nervous Breakdown don’t have the time or resources to do deep research on their contributors, but I’ll point out a non-racial piece Gallo-Brown wrote that, as a lifelong Southerner, offended me about as much as anything he wrote about race in the workshop (http://www.salon.com/2012/01/16/escape_to_the_red_states/singleton). Even Gawker (GAWKER, bastion of New York City, non-Southern douchebaggery ) titled their story on that piece as “Hero Portlanders Live to Tell of Journey Through America’s Savage South” (http://gawker.com/5876587/hero-portlanders-live-to-tell-of-journey-through-americas-savage-south). Alex loves him some noble savage. And also, look at that last line. His writing needs work.

    Conclusion: You can’t go through your life fetishizing “Others” and think nobody’s going to call you on it. It’s offensive, he’s offensive, and he needs to stop playing the victim and consider, for a moment, that Everyone Else isn’t necessarily racist; maybe he needs to work on his craft. I know the other people in that workshop, and I’m horrified that he’s trying to cast them as racists in this piece. Seriously, Alex — I know you’re probably reading this. Shame on you, brother. Shame. Figure out what the workshop’s for, and if honest criticism is not for you, move on.

  7. pir rothenberg says:

    When Mr. Gallo-Brown submitted his fiction for critique, he did indeed “set something foul down in the center of the room,” but his stories are not foul for the reasons he expresses in this essay. True, his fiction deals with race and contains racial situations and ideas, but the “castigation” felt by Mr. Gallo-Brown during workshop is somewhat misplaced: no one in workshop was riled or disturbed by the prospect of a story about race—quite the contrary. Rather, we were riled and disturbed by a piece of fiction that dealt so poorly with race, and with an author who refused to take part in the discussion about it.

    Mr. Gallo-Brown’s essay raises important questions and makes some interesting points about race and writing programs, and I don’t doubt his good intentions, but very little of the essay reflects the fiction he actually wrote, or how he actually responded in the debate he suggests the workshop refused to engage in. I know this because I was a member of the workshop, and one who pressed him to explain what his specific intentions were in his handling of the issue of race. I’d like to address this issue in a little more depth because there is a degree of fraudulence in Mr. Gallo-Brown’s claim that his treatment in workshop gave rise to the complaints he posits in his essay, which unfairly disparages not only our writing program but programs across the country. Writing programs seek to make strong writers. Having taken fiction workshops in four different universities, with at least eight different instructors, I’ve never encountered a situation where the content of a story was deemed socially unacceptable or was outright prohibited (excepting pornography), which is what Mr. Gallo-Brown seems to suggest of the topic of race. During my first workshop as an student MFA in 2003 we critiqued a story about killer chickens. No one told the writer to stop writing about killer chickens; we told him to write it better.

    Let me mention first that Mr. Gallo-Brown’s racial tally of his writing program is wholly inaccurate: we are composed of people from many different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and who have had a wide variety of racial and cultural experiences in different parts of the country and around the world. Mr. Gallo-Brown apparently also forgot to mention that the chair of Creative Writing here is black.

    There is no denying that race in fiction is a subject that cannot be as easily isolated as killer chickens. When you’re writing about race, how you handle it and what you mean to say about it become not only critical, but also objects of critique—especially if the author of one race is presuming to speak for or about members of another. I am white. People of different color and ethnicity make appearances in my fiction, but I have never entitled myself to writing about them. How could my life-experience as a white man give me the voice to speak authentically of the experiences of a black man? To those who try to give voice to others who still have voices of their own, I say this: it better be good. The fact of the matter is, in Mr. Gallo-Brown’s fiction the topic of race is poorly handled. I’m no post-colonial theorist, but describing black people, in this case from the point of view of a white narrator, as having “obsidian hair” and smiles like “light-bulbs” suggests extreme naivety.

    Bear in mind that this critique is directed at Jeremy, the white protagonist of the story, not at Mr. Gallo-Brown, the author; inexperienced fiction writers and the faint of heart tend not to see the meaningful difference therein, especially when it comes to critique, and I can’t help but feel that this has something to do with Mr. Gallo-Brown’s frustration. What the workshop criticized was not race, and not Mr. Gallo-Brown, but the extremely ambiguous handling of race that left readers unsure what to make of the fiction.

    The thrust of the workshop’s response to the author was this: your narrator seems to be treating race with extreme naivety and insensitivity; he is making us squirm the way we do when our grandfather says “those Orientals are good at math,” or when someone refers to a an entire race or ethnicity, with malicious intent or not, as “those people.” And the overwhelming question of the workshop was this: Is this your intention? Is this what you want Jeremy, and this story, to cause readers to feel? Because true discomfort is not caused by racial terms or descriptions, and least of all by the subject of race being dealt with in fiction, as Mr. Gallo-Brown wrongly contends, but by ambiguous intent. If Jeremy has been written intentionally as a character who has a misguided and naïve approach to race and race relations, then, with some work, we’d have a perfectly viable and compelling story that explores the personality and views of such a person. But, if Jeremy’s point of view is meant to reflect educated and open-minded views about race, then we have a problem, because the views advanced in the piece are overwhelmingly steeped in cliché, and fall far short of the racially-enlightened vision Mr. Gallo-Brown believes he is championing.

    As much as Mr. Gallo-Brown pleads for debate and discussion of race in fiction, his real-time response to workshop members was obstinate refusal. When I asked what he was trying to do with race in the story (i.e., whether it was to show a protagonist who was racially enlightened or one who couldn’t see beyond cliché, as it certainly appeared on the page), he divorced himself from the topic, saying he wasn’t doing anything with race, that race was simply there in the story for me to interpret as I wished; when I pressed the issue, he said all my points were “irrelevant.” For someone so eager to engage with the virtues of discomfort, it is hard to understand why Mr. Gallo-Brown refused to discuss the topic intelligently among his peers when he had the chance, or for that matter, why he did not return to workshop for the rest of the semester.

    As for the explanation Mr. Gallo-Brown offers here of this story, it is this: “I skirt the boundary between authentic social reality and troubling racial clichés.” This sounds great. In the context of the actual story, it means very little. While Mr. Gallo-Brown warns of excluding other voices through creative writing’s ever-growing home in academe, and its supposed refusal to entertain stories about race, his explanation remains academic and isolated.

    I offer below a synopsis of one of Mr. Gallo-Brown’s stories that he talks about in the essay as a means of differentiating two issues: the issue of treating race in fiction in writing programs, and the issue of fiction writers taking responsibility for what they write and offer to readers, as well as being fully willing to comprehend the critique he or she is given (and has asked for, given the nature of workshop and writing programs).

    The goal of the white narrator, Jeremy, is essentially to find a connection with black people. He is riding the train (where all the passengers are black) reading a novel by a black author, when a (black) man boards the train selling “stolen hair gel.” The man is lighthearted and provokes good-humored laughter among fellow passengers; he puts on a “good show.” Jeremy thinks that “beneath the surface [of this man] resided a monstrous sadness.”

    Next, Jeremy gets his hair cut at a black barber shop where “loud rap music played. On flat screens displayed along the walls black women gyrated their hips, black men bellowed with authority.” The haircut is obviously not satisfactory, but Jeremy is magnanimous enough to tip the barber two dollars. Next, to get his hair fixed, Jeremy goes to a white barber shop, which is “situated in a strip mall, across the street from Whole Foods […] There were no customers or loiterers of any kind. A soap opera danced across the television.” When the white barber says, “They don’t know how to cut our hair. And we don’t know how to cut theirs,” Jeremy “shudders.”

    Next, Jeremy goes to the park and in true Goldilocks style finds three basketball games in progress, one being “only black,” the next “more mixed,” and the third “populated by very small, pale people.” The black players are “big” and “move with surprising fluidity”; the second game, mixed, has “clunkier” players, and also a “giant Arab”; while the last game is composed of “Asians, whites, Latinos, a few of the lighter-skinned blacks” who are playing so poorly Jeremy has to “avert his eyes” from embarrassment. Jeremy chooses the second court, and after displaying some agile moves on the court, earns the respect of his opponents, as indicated by their remarks, “White boy” and “Watch him.”

    I mentioned above that the story suffered from ambiguity. Here’s what I mean: Why should Jeremy, who is apparently privileged enough to ride the train all day reading and observing, presume to know what’s in the heart of the black man selling hair-gel on the train? In fiction, we can presume to know whatever we like, but in fiction dealing so blatantly with racial issues, Jeremy’s empathy comes off as a sort of racially-charged pity or mere self-involvement: it’s not what I would like, therefore, he must not like it, either. And let’s face it, many hairstylists are probably not trained in cutting hair outside of their race; is the white barber’s comment worth “shuddering” over? What, exactly, is racist about it, its probability or its utterance? By Jeremy’s logic, shouldn’t he consider himself racist for acknowledging that he received a poor haircut from a black barber? Or is it the barber’s being identified as black, and not simply a barber, the problem for Jeremy? But if so, why did he specifically go to a black barbershop? And what does it mean that Jeremy’s only successful connection with people of different races transpires at a basketball court? How should we read this? Are basketball skills the only means white people have of communicating with black people? I hope not. Or do sports simply unite all colors?—yet the attention to distinct racial separation on the courts, and its explicit linkage to skill level (as well as racially-charged talk during the games, which I did not include above), makes this reading hard to swallow.

    These are questions I tried to pose for Mr. Gallo-Brown in an attempt to discuss and debate the subject; the few he allowed me to ask went unanswered. How he can now accuse writing programs of dismissing the topic of race is not only puzzling, it is deceptive.

    What Mr. Gallo-Brown has given his workshop are stories where race takes absolute center stage, but he has failed to offer any agency that would help guide the reader confidently through the story’s meaning. It is bad fiction. But bad fiction about race, I admit, feels compounded and dangerous in ways that stories about other topics might not be. Sure, I was left to wonder about the guy who wrote about killer chickens. He was a little weird, but that’s why we were pals. He went on to write a dozen more killer chicken stories, and they got better because the writing and the handling of the topic got better. But race, when poorly handled, has a way of reflecting back on the author in more dangerous ways than killer chickens. No one accuses Mr. Gallo-Brown of racism, and no one believes he is racist. But this leaves two propositions: either his views on race are shallow and unexamined, or he hasn’t yet found a way to articulate his views, through fiction, on such a vastly complex and touchy subject. The writing workshop he has so disparaged here was concerned with the latter; this was our priority, and this was the place Mr. Gallo-Brown could have listened and learned, and grown as a writer.

    • Diya says:

      I don’t think it can be summed up any better than this. Thanks for a detailed account of why this essay, while well-intentioned, is so misleading. This comment is a wonderful defense of not our specific workshop program, but of the workshop in general as a craft tool. The questions you raised were the exact types of resistance we should be *begging* for if we choose to enter the workshop setting.

  8. Mr. Gallo-Brown clearly submitted a letter asking for sympathy, not an “essay,” as it were. Had the editor(s) of The Nervous Breakdown done their editorial duties with aplomb, they would have sought out a response from the workshop’s head (or, another attendee at least) before publishing this piece. A point / counterpoint would have culminated nicely into a coherent piece, and would have been a fantastic platform for debate and inquiry. Mr. Gallo-Brown’s letter makes too great a claim in the end (race, after all!) to go unchecked and to not present a full picture from the get-go. I would expect The Nervous Breakdown to have more cohones – to be more honest and thorough.

    • TNB Editors says:

      Alex’s essay is an expression of opinion, not an attempt at objective journalism. If you or anyone else in the MFA Program has an interest in responding to this piece with an essay of your own, you’re welcome to submit. The email address is postmaster [at] thenervousbreakdown [dot] com.

      Thanks for reading!
      -Eds

      • But does “opinion” and “entertainment” extend all the way to publishing specific (and false, as it turns out) statements about particular institutions?

        Haha, just kidding! Fox v Akre, bitches!

      • Matt Sailor says:

        There is a pretty basic, easy to understand, and important difference between opinion and fact. Whether Alex is the only white person in the program is not really subject to his opinion. He has distorted facts and misrepresented the program at Georgia State and its students. The editors of The Nervous Breakdown have an existing relationship with the author, and obviously they’ve allowed that to cloud their judgment about whether it’s okay to print an essay full of misrepresentations. That, or they don’t bother to consider those issues in the first place. Neither is acceptable. I can speak for myself and say that I certainly will not be reading this site in the future, and I certainly hope that my colleagues at GSU and elsewhere will ignore your request to gain more publicity for this dishonest, mean-spirited essay by writing a response. This deserves to disappear into the obscure corners of last week’s internet, nothing more. And your editors should be ashamed of themselves.

  9. Hello all,

    I wasn’t going to respond, at first, since many of these comments seem intent on squashing the points raised in my essay rather than opening up discussion (much like my classmates’ comments during our workshops together).

    I do want to say this. First, I had no interest in calling out my workshop by name; this wasn’t an ad hominem attack on Georgia State. It wasn’t even an attempt to exact retribution on a few bad-behaving individuals. I simply was relating the experience I had and trying to connect what had happened to me with larger trends I’ve observed within the literary community.

    I don’t think my classmates are racist. I am not inexperienced with fiction workshops. (I did my undergraduate work in fiction-writing; this was my second semester at GSU.) I was not bothered by people criticizing my work. (That happened plenty during my first semester at GSU and I had a great time.) I don’t think I am holier than thou. I have plenty to learn about fiction-writing, ethics, race, and so on.

    I do strongly resent people telling me what I can and cannot write. That I cannot tolerate. After I brought a story about a mixed-race individual into class, I was promptly told not to do that. Later, I tried to write from the perspective of a white individual passing through black environments. The conversation quickly turned hostile. If I failed in either or both of those stories, I would hope my classmates would constructively alert me to my failures, which is, after all, the point of workshop. This they emphatically did not do. The thoughtfulness displayed by Pir Rothenberg in this comment section was a far cry from his actual behavior in class, which included misrepresenting certain aspects of my story to the point where one wondered if he had bothered to read it in the first place. It also included yelling at me, interrupting me, and acting in a threatening and bullying manner.

    I get, to some extent, the defensiveness shown by Diya Chaudhiri and Matt Sailor. They like their program. They’ve had a good time. They want to defend their friends. But as I said, I wasn’t interested in criticizing Georgia State, which has some great faculty members and some great students. I was trying to relate an experience, in the hopes that it would illuminate broader trends with the literary or MFA community. If I failed, I’m sorry. If I was clumsy, I’m sorry.

    To be clear, though, my essay is true. It is true to my experience. If the commenters here, my embattled classmates, had a different experience in our class, they should probably write their own essay.

    • Matt Sailor says:

      What is truly fascinating and amazing to me, Alex, is that in responding to the critiques of this essay, you have repeated the mistake you made in the workshop: taking a wide array of thoughtful critiques that bring up multiple points and reduced them to accusations of bullying and unfairness.

      Think. Deeper.

    • An "Accuser" says:

      “I would hope my classmates would constructively alert me to my failures, which is, after all, the point of workshop.”

      The point of the workshop, yes, as well as these comments. You wanted a conversation. You got one then, and you’re getting one right now.

      “If the commenters here, my embattled classmates, had a different experience in our class, they should probably write their own essay.”

      Challenge accepted.

    • Matt Sailor says:

      “If the commenters here, my embattled classmates, had a different experience in our class, they should probably write their own essay.” –But we shouldn’t write our own comments in the response section of a public website, right? Because that would hurt your feelings.

  10. Post-racial, post-MFA says:

    When I got to the part where the author wrote “But as 30 inched closer I found myself beginning to think in previously unimaginable terms. What if I wanted to have a family? What work was I qualified to do that would provide even a lower-middle-class income, not to mention health insurance? Hence the MFA” I had to stop reading. I could no longer view my laptop screen through my tears of laughter. I haven’t read the comments above mine or anything else in the essay yet. But, child, please. If you think “MFA” in response to any serious, earnest question about how to solve your financial woes, begin a career, or raise a family, you are not thinking.

    (O.K., I cheated, and went back, and read a little more of the essay — almost all of it, even — though still not the rest of the comments. It’s impressive, almost post-racially yearningly so, to hear that you 1] are in an interracial relationship, 2] have African-American friends, 3] play hoops on ‘black courts’ — so did the skinheads in “American History X,” remember — 4] name-drop both FUBU and Roxanne Gay, and 5] best of all, are misapprehended as being Mexican! Wow, that’s some sort of disavowal-of-one’s-own-honky-status record, right there. You have some serious cred, my friend. My hat — flat-brimmed, sticker and tag intact — is off to you!)

    I also loved the gloss on your own work: “I tread the line between empathic literary performance and cultural appropriation.” Damn! I bet those people in workshop were SO STUPID for not getting such a fine distinction, amirite?

    As for the claim that MFA workshops are “overwhelmingly white”: in your experience, bro: not in mine. In my own MFA workshop, there were — the students changed a bit over two years, so forgive me here — at minimum 8 of the 16 of us were visible minorities; at minimum 4 of 16 LGBT; at minimum 9 of 16 women. I don’t have access to everyone’s financial records, so can’t comment on class. Maybe you should have done a little more research on Seth Abramson’s MFA blog?

  11. Old Timer says:

    As someone who graduated from the University of Arizona’s MFA program almost a decade and a half ago, I can’t tell which disturbs me more: watching people duke out their own personal grievances under the guises of “race” and “workshop” or wondering how this piece was published in the first place. I think I’ll take the latter. The essay wallows in the writer’s own perceived victimhood; it takes the issues of race and authenticity through the lens of the writer’s own experience, as opposed to taking a more global, intellectually rigorous, and broader approach. The people in the workshop are depicted merely as antagonists, as opposed to complicated, fleshed out life and blood individuals. Instead, the piece hurries toward a simplistic and overwrought rhetoric.

    And this, of course, is any writer’s choice. But the editors should have done their due diligence. As a previous commenter pointed out, all one needs to do is a Google search to know where this workshop originates. Moreover, how can TNB not understand that this essay, because of its failures in craft (to me, anyways), would read primarily as a hatchet job?

    I can’t speak to personal ethos of the writer or of his classmates. I will say, however, the writer seems to not understand how a lack of goodwill and personal implication does not jibe with building artistic community–which, in 5, 10, 20 years after graduating–one hopes is built in an MFA program. I imagine that sense of community that the writer implies he wishes would be more receptive to his ideas will, in fact, be completely destroyed. That’s sad and unfortunate. And his own damn fault.

  12. Katie says:

    What’s the exact opposite of “self-aware”? This essay is that.

  13. Giuseppe Martino Buonaiuto says:

    “Confessions of a Hopi Wop Israelite”
    by Giuseppe Martino Buonaiuto

    Like a psychotic docent in the wilderness,
    I will not speak in perfect Ciceronian cadences.
    I draw my voice from a much deeper cistern,
    Preferring the jittery synaptic archive,
    So sublimely unfiltered, random and profane.
    And though I am sequestered now,
    Confined within the walls of a gated, golf-coursed,
    Over-55 lunatic asylum (for Active Seniors I am told),
    I remain oddly puerile,
    Remarkably refreshed and unfettered.
    My institutionalization self-imposed,
    Purposed for my own serenity, and, of course, the safety of others.
    Yet I abide, surprisingly emancipated and frisky.
    I may not have found the peace I seek,
    But the quiet has mercifully come at last.

    The nexus of inner and outer space is context for my story.
    I was born either in Brooklyn, New York or Shungopavi, Arizona,
    More of intervention divine than census data.
    Shungopavi: a designated place for tribal statistical purposes.
    Shungopavi: an ovine abbatoir and shaman’s cloister.
    The Hopi: my mother’s people, a state of mind and grace,
    Deftly landlocked, so cunningly circumscribed,
    By both interior and outer Navajo boundaries.
    The Navajo: a coyote trickster people; a nation of sheep thieves,
    Hornswoggled and landlocked themselves,
    Subsumed within three of the so-called Four Corners:
    A 3/4ths compromise and covenant,
    Pickled in firewater, swaddled in fine print,
    A veritable swindle concocted back when the USA
    Had Manifest Destiny & mayhem on its mind.

    The United States: once a pubescent synthesis of blood and thunder,
    A bold caboodle of trooper spit and polish, unwashed brawlers, Scouts and
    Pathfinders, mountain men, numb-nut ne’er-do-wells,
    Buffalo Bills & big-balled individualists, infected, insane with greed.
    According to the Gospel of His Holiness Saint Zinn,
    A People’s’ History of the United States: essentially state-sponsored terrorism,
    A LAND RUSH grabocracy, orchestrated, blessed and Anointed,
    By a succession of Potomac sharks, Great White Fascist Fathers,
    Far-Away-on-the Bay we call, the Bay we call The Chesapeake.
    All demented national patriarchs craving lebensraum for God and country.
    The USA: a 50-state Leviathan today, a nation jury-rigged out,
    Of railroad ties, steel rails and baling wire,
    Forged by a litany of lies, rapaciousness and murder,
    And jaw-torn chunks of terra firma,
    Bites both large and small out of our well-fucked Native American ass.

    Or culo, as in va’a fare in culo (literally “go do it in the ass”)
    Which Italian Americans pronounce as fongool.
    The language center of my brain,
    My sub-cortical Broca’s region,
    So fraught with such semantic misfires,
    And autonomic linguistic seizures,
    Compel acknowledgement of a father’s contribution,
    To both the gene pool and the genocide.
    Columbus Day: a conspicuously absent holiday out here in Indian Country.
    No festivals or Fifth Avenue parades.
    No excuse for ethnic hoopla. No guinea feast. No cannoli. No tarantella.
    No excuse to not get drunk and not fuck your sister-in-law.
    Emphatically a day for prayer and contemplation,
    A day of infamy like Pearl Harbor and 9/11,
    October 12, 1492: not a discovery; an invasion.

    Growing up in Brooklyn, things were always different for me,
    Different in some sort of redskin/dago/kike–
    Choose Your Favorite Ethnic Slur-sort of way.
    The American Way: dehumanization for fun and profit.
    Melting pot anonymity and denial of complicity with evil.
    But this is no time to bring up America’s sordid past,
    Or, a personal pet peeve: Indian Sovereignty.
    For Uncle Sam and his minions, an ever-widening, conveniently flexible concept,
    Not a commandment or law,
    Not really a treaty or a compact,
    Or even a business deal. Let’s get real:
    It was not even much in the way of a guideline.
    Just some kind of an advisory, a bulletin or newsletter,
    Could it merely have been a free-floating suggestion?
    Yes, that’s it exactly: a suggestion.

    Over and under halcyon American skies,
    Over and around those majestic purple mountain peaks,
    Those trapped in poetic amber waves of wheat and oats,
    Corn and barley, wheat shredded and puffed,
    Corn flaked and milled, Wheat Chex and Wheaties, oats that are little Os;
    Kix and Trix, Fiber One, and Kashi-Go-Lean, Lucky Charms and matso balls,
    Kreplach and kishka,
    Polenta and risotto.
    Our cantaloupe and squash patch,
    Our fruited prairie plain, our delicate ecological Eden,
    In balance and harmony with nature, as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce instructs:
    “These white devils are not going to,
    Stop raping and killing, cheating and eating us,
    Until they have the whole fucking enchilada.
    I’m talking about ‘from sea to shining sea.’”

    “I fight no more forever,” Babaloo.
    So I must steer this clunky keelboat of discovery,
    Back to the main channel of my sad and starry demented river.
    My warpath is personal but not historical.
    It is my brain’s own convoluted cognitive process I cannot saavy.
    Whatever biochemical or—as I suspect more each day—
    Whatever biomechanical protocols govern my identity,
    My weltanschauung: my world-view, as sprechen by proto-Nazis;
    Putz philosophers of the 17th, 18th & 19th century.
    The German intelligentsia: what a cavalcade of maniacal bastards!
    Why is this Jew unsurprised these Zarathustra-fueled Übermenschen–
    Be it the Kaiser (German for Caesar), Bismarck, Hitler or,
    Even that Euro-skank, Angela Merkel . . .why am I not surprised these Huns,
    Get global grab-ass on their sauerbraten cabezas every few generations?
    To be, or not to be the Kraut bullgoose loony: GOTT.

    Biomechanical protocols govern my identity and are implanted while I sleep.
    My brain–my weak and weary CPU–is replenished, my discs defragmented.
    A suite of magnetic and optical white rooms, cleansed free of contaminants,
    Gun mounts & lifeboat stations manned and ready,
    Standing at attention and saluting British snap-style,
    Snap-to and heel click, ramrod straight and cheerful: “Ready for duty, Sir.”
    My mind is ravenous, lusting for something, anything to process.
    Any memory or image, lyric or construct,
    Be they short-term dailies or deeply imprinted.
    Fixations archived one and all in deep storage time and space.
    Memories, some subconscious, most vaporous;
    Others–the scary ones—eidetic: frighteningly detailed and extraordinarily vivid.
    Precise cognitive transcripts; recollected so richly rife and fresh.
    Visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory reloads:
    Queued up and increasingly re-experienced.

    The bio-data of six decades: it’s all there.
    People, countless, places and things cataloged.
    Every event, joy and trauma enveloped from within or,
    Accessed externally from biomechanical storage devices.
    The random access memory of a lifetime,
    Read and recollected from cerebral repositories and vaults,
    All the while the entire greedy process overseen,
    Over-driven by that all-subservient British bat-man,
    Rummaging through the data in batches small and large,
    Internal and external drives working in seamless syncopation,
    Self-referential, at times paradoxical or infinitely looped.
    “Cogito ergo sum.”
    Descartes stripped it down to the basics but there’s more to the story:
    Thinking about thinking.
    A curse and minefield for the cerebral: metacognition.

    No, it is not the fact that thought exists,
    Or even the thoughts themselves.
    But the information technology of thought that baffles me,
    As adaptive and profound as any evolution posited by Darwin,
    Beyond the wetware in my skull, an entirely new operating system.
    My mental and cultural landscape are becoming one.
    Machines are connecting the two.
    It’s what I am and what I am becoming.
    Once more for emphasis:
    It is the information technology of who I am.
    It is the operating system of my mental and cultural landscape.
    It is the machinery connecting the two.
    This is the central point of this narrative:
    Metacognition–your superego’s yenta Cassandra,
    Screaming, screaming in your psychic ear, your good ear:

    “LISTEN: The machines are taking over, taking you over.
    Your identity and train of thought are repeatedly hijacked,
    Switched off the main line onto spurs and tangents,
    Only marginally connected or not at all.
    (Incoming TEXT from my editor: “Lighten Up, Giuseppi!”)
    Reminding me again that most in my audience,
    Rarely get past the comic page. All righty then: think Calvin & Hobbes.
    John Calvin, a precocious and adventurous six-year old boy,
    Subject to flights of 16th Century French theological fancy.
    Thomas Hobbes, a sardonic anthropomorphic tiger from 17th Century England,
    Mumbling about life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
    Taken together–their antics and shenanigans–their relationship to each other,
    Remind us of our dual nature; explore for us broad issues like public education;
    The economy, environmentalism & the Global Rectal Thermometer;
    Not to mention the numerous flaws of opinion polls.

    And again my editor TEXTS me, reminds me again: “LIGHTEN UP!”
    Consoling me: “Even Shakespeare had to play to the groundlings.”
    The groundlings, AKA: The Rabble.
    Yes. Even the fucking Bard, even Willie the Shake,
    Had to contend with a decidedly lowbrow copse of carrion.
    Oh yes, the groundlings, a carrion herd, a flying flock of carrion seagulls,
    Carrion crow, carrion-feeders one and all,
    And let’s throw Sheryl Crow into the mix while we’re at it:
    “Hit it! This ain’t no disco. And it ain’t no country club either, this is L.A.”

    Send “All I Wanna Do” Ringtone to your Cell

    Once more, I digress.
    The Rabble: an amorphous, gelatinous Jabba the Hutt of commonality.
    The Rabble: drunk, debauched & lawless.
    Too booty-delicious to stop Bill & Hilary from thinking about tomorrow;
    Too Paul McCartney My Love Does it Good to think twice.

    The Roman Saturnalia: a weeklong fuck fest.
    The Saturnalia: originally a pagan kink-fest in honor of the deity Saturn.
    Dovetailing nicely with the advent of the Christian era,
    With a project started by Il Capo di Tutti Capi,
    One of the early popes, co-opting the Roman calendar between 17 and 25 December,
    Putting the finishing touches on the Jesus myth.
    For Brooklyn Hopi-Wop-Jew baby boomers like me,
    Saturnalia manifested itself as Disco Fever,
    Unpleasant years of electrolysis, scrunched balls in tight polyester
    For Roman plebeians, for the great unwashed citizenry of Rome,
    Saturnalia was just a great big Italian wedding:
    A true family blowout and once-in-a-lifetime ego-trip for Dad,
    The father of the bride, Vito Corleone, Don for A Day:
    “Some think the world is made for fun and frolic,
    And so do I! Funicula, Funiculi!”

    America: love it or leave it; my country right or wrong.
    Sure, we were citizens of Rome,
    But any Joe Josephus spending the night under a Tiber bridge,
    Or sleeping off a three day drunk some afternoon,
    Up in the Coliseum bleachers, the cheap seats, out beyond the monuments,
    The original three monuments in the old stadium,
    Standing out in fair territory out in center field,
    Those three stone slabs honoring Gehrig, Huggins, and Babe.
    Yes, in the house that Ruth built–Home of the Bronx Bombers–WTF?
    Any Joe Josephus knows: Roman citizenship doesn’t do too much for you,
    Except get you paxed, taxed & drafted into the Legion.
    For us the Roman lifestyle was HIND-TIT humble.
    We plebeians drew our grandeur by association with Empire.
    Very few Romans and certainly only those of the patrician class lived high,
    High on the hog, enjoying a worldly extravaganza, like—whom do we both know?

    Okay, let’s say Laurence Olivier as Crassus in Spartacus.
    Come on, you saw Spartacus fifteen fucking times.
    Remember Crassus?
    Crassus: that kinky twisted fuck trying to get his freak on with,
    Tony Curtis in a sunken marble tub?
    We plebes led lives of quiet pubis-scratching desperation,
    A bunch of would-be legionnaires, diseased half the time,
    Paid in salt tablets or baccala, salted codfish soaked yellow in olive oil.
    Stiffs we used to call them on New Year’s Eve in Brooklyn.
    Let’s face it: we were hyenas eating someone else’s kill,
    Stage-door jackals, Juvenal-come-late-lies, a mob of moronic mook boneheads
    Bought off with bread & circuses and Reality TV.
    Each night, dished up a wide variety of lowbrow Elizabethan-era entertainments.
    We contemplate an evening on the town, downtown—
    (cue Petula Clark/Send “Downtown” Ringtone to your Cell)

    On any given London night, to wit: mummers, jugglers, bear & bull baiters.
    How about dog & cock fighters, quoits & skittles, alehouses & brothels?
    In short, somewhere, anywhere else,
    Anywhere other than down along the Thames,
    At Bankside in Southwark, down in the Globe Theater mosh pit,
    Slugging it out with the groundlings whose only interest,
    In the performance is the choreography of swordplay and stale sexual puns.
    Meanwhile, Hugh Fennyman–probably a fellow Jew,
    An English Renaissance Bugsy Siegel or Mickey Cohen—
    Meanwhile Fennyman, the local mob boss is getting his ya-yas,
    Roasting the feet of my text-messaging editor, Philip Henslowe.
    Poor and pathetic Henslowe, works on commission, always scrounging,
    But a true patron of my craft, a gentleman of infinite jest and patience,
    Spiritual subsistence, and every now and then a good meal at some,
    Sawdust joint with oyster shells, and a Prufrockian silk purse of T.S. Eliot gold.

    Poor, pathetic Henslowe, trussed up by Fennyman,
    His editorial feet in what looks like a Japanese hibachi.
    Henslowe’s feet to the fire–feet to the fire—get it?
    A catchy phrase whose derivation conjures up,
    A grotesque yet vivid image of torture,
    An exquisite insight into how such phrases ingress the idiom,
    Not to mention a scene once witnessed at a secret Romanian CIA prison,
    I’d been ordered to Bucharest not long after 9/11,
    Handling the rendition and torture of Habib Sadeghi,

    An entirely innocent falafel maker from Steinway Street, Astoria, Queens.
    Shock the Monkey: it’s what we do. GOTO:
    Peter Gabriel – Shock the Monkey/
    (HQ music video) – YouTube//
    http://www.youtube.com/
    Poor, pathetic, pissed-on Henslowe.

    Fennyman : (his avarice is whet by something Philly screams out about a new script) “A play takes time. Find actors; Rehearsals. Let’s say open in three weeks. That’s–what–five hundred groundlings at tuppence each, in addition four hundred groundlings tuppence each, in addition four hundred backsides at three pence–a penny extra for a cushion, call it two hundred cushions, say two performances for safety how much is that Mr. Frees?”
    Jacobean Tweet, John (1580-1684) Webster: “I saw him kissing her bubbies.”

    It’s Geoffrey Rush, channeling Henslowe again,
    My editor, a singed smoking madman now,
    Feet in an ice bucket, instructing me once more:
    “Lighten things up, you know . . .
    Comedy, love and a bit with a dog.”
    I digress again and return to Hopi Land, back to my shaman-monastic abattoir,
    That Zen Center in downtown Shungopavi.
    At the Tribal Enrolment Office I make my case for a Certificate of Indian Blood,
    Called a CIB by the Natives and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
    The BIA: representing gold & uranium miners, cattle and sheep ranchers,
    Sodbusters & homesteaders; railroaders and dam builders since 1824.
    Just in time for Andrew Jackson, another false friend of Native America,
    Just before Old Hickory, one of many Democratic Party hypocrites and scoundrels,
    Gives the FONGOOL, up the CULO go ahead.
    Hey Andy, I’ve got your Jacksonian democracy: Hanging!
    The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) mission is to: “… enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives. What’s that in the fine print? Uncle Sammy holds “the trust assets of American Indians.”

    Here’s a fucking tip, Geronimo: if he trusted you,
    It would ALL belong to you.
    To you and The People.
    But it’s all fork-tongued white bullshit.
    If true, Indian sovereignty would cease to be a sick one-liner,
    Cease to be a blunt force punch line, more of,
    King Leopold’s 19th Century stand-up comedy schtick,
    Leo Presents: The Rape of the Congo.
    La Belgique mission civilisatrice—
    That’s what French speakers called Uncle Leo’s imperial public policy,
    Bringing the gift of civilization to central Africa.
    Like Manifest Destiny in America, it had a nice colonial ring to it.
    “Our manifest destiny [is] to overspread the continent,
    Allotted by Providence for the free development,
    Of our yearly multiplying millions.” John L. O’Sullivan, 1845

    Our civilizing mission or manifest destiny:
    Either/or, a catchy turn of phrase;
    Not unlike another ironic euphemism and semantic subterfuge:
    The Pacification of the West; Pacification?
    Hardly: decidedly not too peaceful for Cochise & Tonto.
    Meanwhile, Madonna is cash rich but disrespected Evita poor,
    To wit: A Virgin on the Rocks (throwing in a byte or 2 of Da Vinci Code).
    Meanwhile, Miss Ciccone denied her golden totem dildo.
    They snubbed that little guinea cunt, didn’t they?
    Snubbed her, robbed her rotten.
    Evita, her magnum opus, right up there with . . .
    Her SNL Wayne’s World skit:
    “Get a load of the unit on that guy.”
    Or, that infamous MTV Music Video Awards stunt,
    That classic Lesbo Lip-Lock with Britney Spears.

    How could I not see that Oscar snubola as prime evidence?
    It was just another stunning case of American anti-Italian racial animus.
    Anyone familiar with Noam Chomsky would see it,
    Must view it in the same context as the Sacco & Vanzetti case,
    Or, that arbitrary lynching of 9 Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891,
    To cite just two instances of anti-Italian judicial reach & mob violence,
    Much like what happened to my cousin Dominic,
    Gang-raped by the Harlem Globetrotters, in their locker room during halftime,
    While he working for Abe Saperstein back in 1952.
    Dom was doing advance for Abe, supporting creation of The Washington Generals:
    A permanent stable of hoop dream patsies and foils,
    Named for the ever freewheeling, glad-handing, backslapping,
    Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF), himself,
    Namely General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man they liked,
    And called IKE: quite possibly a crypto Jew from Abilene.

    Of course, Harry Truman was my first Great White Fascist Father,
    Back in 1946, when I first opened my eyes, hung up there,
    High above, looking down from the adobe wall.
    Surveying the entire circular kiva,
    I had the best seat in the house.
    Don’t let it be said my Spider Grandmother or Hopi Corn Mother,
    Did not want me looking around at things,
    Discovering what made me special.
    Didn’t divine intervention play a significant part of my creation?
    Knowing Mamma Mia and Nonna were Deities,
    Gave me an edge later on the streets of Brooklyn.
    The Cradleboard: was there ever a more divinely inspired gift to human curiosity? The Cradleboard: a perfect vantage point, an infant’s early grasp,
    Of life harmonious, suspended between Mother Earth and Father Sky.
    Simply put: the Hopi should be running our fucking public schools.

    Harry in Masonic hat
    House: “That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

    But it was IKE with whom I first associated,
    Associated with the concept 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
    I liked IKE. Who didn’t?
    What was not to like?
    He won the fucking war, didn’t he?
    And he wasn’t one of those crazy mofo John Birchers,
    Way out there, on the far right lunatic Republican fringe,
    Was he? (It seems odd and nearly impossible to believe in 2013,
    That there was once a time in our Boomer lives,
    When the extreme right wing of the Republican Party
    Was viewed by the FBI as an actual threat to American democracy.)
    Understand: it was at a time when The FBI,
    Had little ideological baggage,
    But a great appetite for secrets,
    The insuppressible Jay Edgar doing his thang.

    IKE: of whom we grew so, oh-so Fifties fond.
    Good old reliable, Nathan Shaking IKE:
    He’d been fixed, hadn’t he? Had had the psychic snip.
    Snipped as a West Point cadet & parade ground martinet.
    Which made IKE a good man to have in a pinch,
    Especially when crucial policy direction was way above his pay grade.
    Cousin Dom was Saperstein’s bagman, bribing out the opposition,
    Which came mainly from religious and patriotic organizations,
    Viewing the bogus white sports franchise as obscene.
    The Washington Generals, Saperstein’s new team would have but one opponent,
    And one sole mission: to serve as the butt of endless jokes and sight gags for—
    Negroes. To play the chronic fools of–
    Negroes. To be chronically humiliated and insulted by—
    Negroes. To run up and down the boards all night, being outran by—
    Negroes. Not to mention having to wear baggy silk shorts.

    Meadowlark Lemon: (interviewed in his Scottsdale, AZ winter residence in 2003 by former ESPN commentator Charlie Steiner, Malverne High School, Class of ’67.)

    “Yeah, Charlie, we raped that grease-ball Dominic; we shagged his guinea mouth and culo rotten.” Meadowlark Lemon

    IKE, briefed on the issue by higher-ups, quickly got behind the idea.
    The Harlem Globetrotters were to exist, and continue to exist,
    Are sustained financially by Illuminati sponsors,
    For one reason and one reason only:
    To serve elite interests that the Negro be kept down and subservient,
    That the minstrel show be perpetuated,
    A policy surviving the elaborate window dressing of the civil rights movement, Affirmative action, and our first Uncle Tom president.
    Case in point: Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman & Metta World Peace Artest.
    Cha-cha-cha changing again: I am Robert Allen Zimmermann,
    A whiny, skinny Jew, stoned and rolling in from Minnesota,
    Arrested, obviously a vagrant, caught strolling around his tony Jersey enclave,
    Having moved on up the list, the A-list, a special invitation-only,
    Yom Kippur Passover Seder: Next Year in Jerusalem, Babaloo!

    I take ownership of all my autonomic and conditioned reflexes;
    Each personal neural arc and pathway,
    All shenanigans & shellackings,
    Or blunt force cognitive traumas.
    It’s all percolating nicely now, thank you,
    In kitchen counter earthen crockery:
    Random access memory: a slow-cook crockpot,
    Bubbling through my psychic sieve.
    My memories seem only remotely familiar,
    Distant and vague, at times unreal:
    An alien hybrid databank accessed accidently on purpose;
    Flaky science sustains and monitors my nervous system.
    And leads us to an overwhelming question:
    Is it true that John Dillinger’s schlong is in the Smithsonian Museum?
    Enquiring minds want to know, Kemosabe!

    “Any last words, asshole?” TWEETS Adam Smith.
    Postmortem cyber-graffiti, an epitaph carved in space;
    Last words, so singular and simple,
    Across the universal great divide,
    Frisbee-d, like a Pleistocene Kubrick bone,
    Tossed randomly into space,
    Morphing into a gyroscopic space station.
    Mr. Smith, a calypso capitalist, and me,
    Me, the Poet Laureate of the United States and Adam;
    Who, I didn’t know from Adam.
    But we tripped the light fantastic,
    We boogied the Protestant Work Ethic,
    To the tune of that old Scotch-Presbyterian favorite,
    Variations of a 5-point Calvinist theme: Total Depravity; Election; Particular Redemption; Irresistible Grace; & Perseverance of the Saints.

    Mr. Smith, the author of An Inquiry into the Nature
    & Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776),
    One of the best-known, intellectual rationales for:
    Free trade, capitalism, and libertarianism,
    The latter term a euphemism for Social Darwinism.
    Prior to 1764, Calvinists in France were called Huguenots,
    A persecuted religious majority . . . is that possible?
    A persecuted majority of Edict of Nantes repute.
    Adam Smith, likely of French Huguenot Jewish ancestry himself,
    Reminds me that it is my principal plus interest giving me my daily gluten.
    And don’t think the irony escapes me now,
    A realization that it has taken me nearly all my life to see again,
    What I once saw so vividly as a child, way back when.
    Before I put away childish things, including the following sentiment:
    “All I need is the air that I breathe.”

    The Hippies were right, of course.
    The Hollies had it all figured out.
    With the answer, as usual, right there in the lyrics.
    But you were lucky if you were listening.
    There was a time before I embraced,
    The other “legendary” economists:
    The inexorable Marx,
    The savage society of Veblen,
    The heresies we know so well of Keynes.
    I was a child.
    And when I was a child, I spake as a child—
    Grazie mille, King James—
    I understood as a child; I thought as a child.
    But when I became a man I jumped on the bus with the band,
    Hopped on the irresistible bandwagon of Adam Smith.

    Smith: “Any last words, asshole?”
    Okay, you were right: man is rationally self-interested.
    Grazie tanto, Scotch Enlightenment,
    An intellectual movement driven by,
    An alliance of Calvinists and Illuminati,
    Freemasons and Johnny Walker Black.
    Talk about an irresistible bandwagon:
    Smith, the gloomy Malthus, and David Ricardo,
    Another Jew boy born in London, England,
    Third of 17 children of a Sephardic family of Portuguese origin,
    Who had recently relocated from the Dutch Republic.
    Fucking Jews!
    Like everything shrewd, sane and practical in this world,
    WE also invented the concept: FOLLOW THE MONEY.

    The lyrics: if you were really listening, you’d get it:
    Respiration keeps one sufficiently busy,
    Just breathing free can be a full-time job,
    Especially when–borrowing a phrase from British cricketers—,
    One contemplates the sorry state of the wicket.
    Now that I am gainfully superannuated,
    Pensioned off the employment radar screen.
    Oft I go there into the wild ebon yonder,
    Wandering the brain cloud at will.
    My journey indulges curiosity, creativity and deceit.
    I free range the sticky wicket,
    I have no particular place to go.
    Snagging some random fact or factoid,
    A stop & go rural postal route,
    Jumping on and off the brain cloud.

    Just sampling really,
    But every now and then, gorging myself,
    At some information super smorgasbord,
    At a Good Samaritan Rest Stop,
    I ponder my own frazzled neurology,
    When I was a child—
    Before I learned the grim economic facts of life and Judaism,
    Before I learned Hebrew,
    Before my laissez-faire Bar Mitzvah lessons,
    Under the rabbinical tutelage of Rebbe Kahane–
    I knew what every clever child knows about life:
    The surfing itself is the destination.
    Accessing RAM–random access memory—
    On a strictly need to know basis.
    RAM: a pretty good name for consciousness these days.

    If I were an Asimov or Sir Arthur (Sri Lankabhimanya) Clarke,
    I’d get freaky now and riff on Terminators, Time Travel and Cyborgs.
    But this is truth not science fiction.
    Nevertheless, someone had better,
    Come up with another name for cyborg.
    Some other name for a critter,
    Composed of both biological and artificial parts?
    Parts-is-parts–be they electronic, mechanical or robotic.
    But after a lifetime of science fiction media,
    After a steady media diet, rife with dystopian technology nightmares,
    Is anyone likely to admit to being a cyborg?
    Since I always give credit where credit is due,
    I acknowledge that cyborg was a term coined in 1960,
    By Manfred Clynes & Nathan S. Kline and,
    Used to identify a self-regulating human-machine system in outer space.

    Five years later D. S. Halacy’s: Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman,
    Featured an introduction, which spoke of: “… a new frontier, that was not,
    Merely space, but more profoundly, the relationship between inner space,
    And outer space; a bridge, i.e., between mind and matter.”
    So, by definition, a cyborg defined is an organism with,
    Technology-enhanced abilities: an antenna array,
    Replacing what was once sentient and human.
    My glands, once in control of metabolism and emotions,
    Have been replaced by several servomechanisms.
    I am biomechanical and gluttonous.
    Soaking up and breathing out the atmosphere,
    My Baby Boom experience of six decades,
    Homogenized and homespun, feedback looped,
    Endlessly networked through predigested mass media,
    Culture as demographically targeted content.

    This must have something to do with my own metamorphosis.
    I think of Gregor Samsa, a Kafkaesque character if there ever was one.
    And though we share common traits,
    My evolutionary progress surpasses and transcends his.
    Samsa–by Phylum and Class–was, after all, an insect.
    Nonetheless, I remain a changeling.
    Have I not seen many stages of growth?
    Each a painful metamorphic cycle,
    From exquisite first egg,
    Through caterpillar’s appetite & squirm.
    To phlegmatic bliss and pupa quietude,
    I unfold my wings in a rush of Van Gogh palette,
    Color, texture, movement and grace, lift off, flapping in flight.
    My eyes have witnessed wondrous s transformations,
    My experience, nouveau riche and distinctly self-referential;
    For the most part unspecific & longitudinally pedestrian.

    Yes, something has happened to me along the way.
    I am no longer certain of my identity as a human being.
    Time and technology has altered my basic wiring diagram.
    I suspect the sophisticated gadgets and tools,
    I’ve been using to shape & make sense of my environment,
    Have reared up and turned around on me.
    My tools have reshaped my brain & central nervous system.
    Remaking me as something simultaneously more and less human.
    The electronic toys and tools I once so lovingly embraced,
    Have turned unpredictable and rabid,
    Their bite penetrating my skin and septic now, a cluster of implanted sensors,
    Content: currency made increasingly more valuable as time passes,
    Served up by and serving the interests of a pervasively predatory 1%.
    And the rest of us: the so-called 99%?
    No longer human; simply put by Howard—both Beale & Zinn–

    Humanoid.

  14. Caleb says:

    hah, not just F.U.B.U., that implies we’re contributing wholeheartedly to some MFA-story monoculture.

    Maybe just the F. and the U.:

    F. U. “For us,” but we ain’t asking. And I think “F U” a solid response to the torrent of fiction in literary journals dealing uninterestingly with the same old topics (cancer, discomfort in a new environment, cancer, deteriorating love, cancer, etc.).

    Even “weird” journals mess around with the same old boring shit. Let’s not just encourage different race perspectives in this white-normative boring-ass MFA culture, let’s encourage poor perspectives, steppe perspectives, pampa perspectives, historical perspectives, lady-of-the-night-in-18th ce-NYC perspectives, siege perspectives, gang perspectives, cave-man perspectives, etc. No more graduate students. No more failures, please. Let’s have the failed, the dead, the deaf.

  15. Giuseppi Martino Buonaiuto says:

    Caleb, fratello mio, you are out there crying in the wilderness.

  16. Alex Gallo-Brown | Race in the Land of MFA | The Nervous Breakdown
    roger vivier flats http://www.snehabhavanktm.org/images/vivier.htm

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