Friday, August 28, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Campbell McGrath and Caryl Phillips

...and what do you know, the day after I blog about Campbell McGrath, I come by a review of his book on the Lewis & Clark expedition. The review was published in the Washington Post last week, written by Brad Leithauser. The reviewer finds very nice things to say about the long poem -- really, it is a very sweet review. "Surely, the sort of task McGrath undertakes here represents one of literature's profoundest pleasures. A poet tirelessly digs up something buried by days, years, centuries. And then he holds it to the light." It is a childish impulse that makes me want to end this paragraph with "buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. buffalo, buffalo."

The Q&A with Caryl Phillips quickly veered off into the discussion of race and class. He is a British novelist (Wikipedia also says "with a Caribbean background"), who's lived in the States for about 20 years. He had spent the last year back in England, teaching at Oxford. So he was talking about how in England he was being put in the position of a spokesperson, of an authority on American attitudes towards race & class. He used a phrase about "being seduced into being something other than a writer" and used examples of Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll. (Saying, in passing, that Böll was not a very good writer. Ack!).

When Phillips wasn't being asked questions about what it's like being a black writer today, he wanted to talk about the notion of a historical novel. "The less you know about characters based on historical people, the better," he said. "You're not writing when you're researching."

Alas, he didn't get a chance to talk at length about the problematic of historical novel. The people in the room really wanted to know, "Is it possible to speak about identity independent of race?" I wonder if our eagerness to talk about the problematics of race had something to do with the fact that out of 20 poets and writers on campus during those two weeks, he was the only writer who not only identifies as black, but also writes novels that thematise the issues of race. So, once again, and quite unwillingly, he was put in the uncomfortable position of being a spokesperson for the issues of race. Issues of class were largely ignored in the room -- the consciousness about the class-based privilege seemed to be in a nascent state.

Phillips said something very beautiful about writing vs. revising: "Writing is the declaration of intent. Rewriting is true writing." Amen.

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