Poetry and Programming

When I worked as a web developer, Sublime Text came out of nowhere (Australia, actually) to become enormously popular. I understand it remains popular still, though I believe the newer program Atom has also gained a lot of adherents. One of the best things about Sublime Text, though, in addition to its name, is its flexibility—flexibility that extends to making the program a suitable environment for writers.

Sublime Text as a programming editor.
Sublime Text as a programming editor.

For years, I’ve heard stories about writers adopting Sublime Text in place of some other software. Indeed, the Sublime Text site now bills the program as “a sophisticated text editor for code, markup and prose.” Having used Sublime Text as a developer, I decided to give it a go as a writer. It works remarkably well. For shorter forms of writing, especially poetry, it is superb.

Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.
Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.

The “minimap” feature (which the recently reviewed Write! app also uses) is very helpful in longer narratives, as it lets you visualize where a current line fits into the larger story. For my money, though (speaking of which, Sublime Text retails for $70—this gives you a license to use the software on all your computers, regardless of whether they’re running Windows, macOS or Linux), the program’s real killer feature is its exceptionally configurable layout.

Sublime Text for writers—comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.
Sublime Text for writers: comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.

I like to compare multiple versions of my work as I move toward a final draft, and Sublime Text’s vertical columns feature (you can have as many as four columns) lets me view multiple versions side-by-side. This is especially useful for poetry, since it provides a direct line-by-line comparison.

Sublime Text’s programming heritage remains evident in some ways, but writers should not feel unduly intimidated by this. For example, you need to configure preferences via individual files, and you also need to add a few plugins to make Sublime Text a solid environment for writing.

You can install the necessary plugins via the program’s Package Control feature. Only four are really needed: Markdown Editing, Pandoc (which lets you export your Sublime Text work to Microsoft Word), Side Bar (a better replacement for the default sidebar) and Word Count.

If setting up Sublime Text seems a bit too hands-on, then there are plenty of other solid writing apps out there, including the aforementioned Write! But if you like the idea of customizing your writing environment, and the capability of directly comparing multiple versions of your work appeals to you, you’ll find Sublime Text very satisfying. You may even find it sublime.

High on Antiphon

I recently published a poem in Antiphon, the estimable UK online poetry magazine. Although the poem’s title is “High,” the heading of this post refers to the magazine as a whole—it is simply excellent, and serves as a wonderful antidote to today’s bleak morning headlines.

Antiphon issue 21—a labor of love.
Antiphon issue 21—a labor of love.

Antiphon is edited by Rosemary Badcoe (who is also the magazine’s designer) and Noel Williams, and it is an obvious labor of love. Each issue (which the magazine’s website notes is archived by the British Library) features a wide range of poetry, with careful attention paid to sound, rhythm and image. The magazine is friendly towards metrical and non-metrical work, and its editors have very good ears. Some of the standout poems in this new issue (no. 21) include “The Weather We Call Raw” and “Sylvia’s Games” by David Troupes, “A catch-all” by Patrick Theron Erickson, “A Bag of Frozen Kidney Beans” by Burgi Zenhaeusern, “C282Y” by Susan L Leary and “Afterwards” by Anthony Watts. There are a number of other very good poems as well. The tone nods toward the traditional but standards are quite high (no pun intended). You won’t find any Michael Robbins poems here. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Robbins; he simply operates with a different set of criteria in mind.

Ms. Badcoe says, in her prologue to this issue, that she disagrees with the idea that all poetry is political. I concur—politics tends to coarsen language and ideas, and never more so than today. I’ve spent far too much time recently thinking and writing about political issues. It is enormously liberating to take another path and come at the world and its meanings from a different angle.

Poetry is an endangered species these days. I read recently that fewer than seven percent of American adults read it at all. This is highly unfortunate, because poetry has a special role to play in fostering greater understanding.

Again, Rosemary Badcoe: “Poetry is subtle, and takes the long view, the intensely focused close view, the light-bent-around-a-corner view. It uses precise, carefully observed language and appreciates nuance and differences and similarities. There are better ways to protest than to write a poem, I’d contend, but writing a poem is one way of expressing the complexity of a world that others would try to reduce to sound-bites.”

I’m delighted to be published in Antiphon. I’ll reproduce “High” here eventually but I’d like to give the magazine exclusivity until their next issue appears. In the meantime, the Antiphon blog features audio recordings of many of the poems in this issue, including mine.

Is America Possible?

It’s an urgent question today, and I fear the answer is likely “no,” although I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. This compelling message from Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party offers some interesting food for thought. I reproduce it here in observance of the Fourth.

July 4th is upon us. We’re all excited to spend time with friends and family grilling at BBQs and watching fireworks.

Is America possible? Image: flickr.com.

But as we celebrate our nation’s foundational myth, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with some of the darker parts of our story. The 4th of July in 1776 was a moment of revolution and democracy, but also a moment of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.

This founding tension is still with us today. We do ourselves no favors by closing our eyes to its presence in our lives. If we’re going to live in a country where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need to have important, difficult conversations about how we build an America that will truly live up to its promise for everyone.

As we gather this July 4th, let’s try to answer the difficult question author Michelle Alexander asked in November: “Is America Possible?”

“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What many of us have been attempting to do—build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide—has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done. Is America Possible?”1

We know these conversations can be difficult to have. Try to approach this conversation from a place of personal connection and shared values, and understand that without this important work, we cannot have real change. We know it’s tough, but it’s worth it.

We’ve made a list of conversation starters to get you going:

  • What is your experience of freedom? How is your experience of freedom different from other folks? What are things you can do that others can’t?
  • What kind of America do you want to live in? What’s keeping that America from being possible for everybody?
  • What can we do to make our neighborhoods and communities safe for people of color? What are you doing to stand up for racial justice? If you’re part of a resistance group, how are you working with groups led by people of color?
  • How do we build communities where both safety and justice are the norm? How do police interact with different communities? What are alternatives to calling the police?

Having this conversation is a national tradition. On Independence Day in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”2

The U.S. was built by slaves, immigrants, and working people of all races for a small class of wealthy, white male land owners on land stolen from native peoples. This legacy of slavery, colonization, and exploitation still lingers today—in the shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles and lack of justice, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in the poverty of Appalachian coal towns and abandoned neighborhoods of post-industrial cities, in the construction of a dangerous pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

It lingers in our national myths that anyone can secure a prosperous future with enough grit and hard work —never mind the generations of public policies and corporate practices from Jim Crow to redlining to predatory lending to subprime mortgages to “too big to fail” that have put that prospect of security out of reach.

If we’re going to build an America that looks like the one we have in our hearts, we need to get to work today—and that work starts by acknowledging our past and creating a shared vision with one another.

I hope you and your family have a happy July 4th.

Amanda Johnson

Sources:

1. Michelle Alexander, Facebook. Nov. 13, 2016.

2. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”

Amanda and the Working Families Party ask that you pledge to have a conversation about America with your friends and family.

Of course, the real conversation needs to take place with people who are not your friends and family. Good luck with that.

The Allure of Hatred

When James T. Hodgkinson shot Representative Steve Scalise and three others on an Alexandria, VA baseball practice field on June 14, his anti-Trump, anti-Republican Party views were widely noted. It wasn’t long before the Republicans started saying the left should “tone it down,” and pro-Trump supporters in Central Park interrupted a performance of Julius Caesar, protesting “the normalization of political violence against the right.”

Political violence on the diamond.
Political violence on the diamond. Photo: CNN.

No group has a monopoly on political hatred, but most would agree that hate groups and violent individual incidents occur more frequently on the right than the left. In fact there was surprise expressed at Hodgkinson’s political views, since anti-Republican violence is somewhat unusual. Not that Hodgkinson was any sort of political activist—he seems to have been a disturbed individual and a domestic abuser with little political involvement at all, apart from his comments on social media. But political hatred is alluring these days, whether one has a troubled background or not.

American politics has disintegrated to the point where each side views the other as the enemy. Enmity has reached the point where, for many people, members of the opposition party appear as enormously damaged human beings, if not actively evil. Eric Trump was recently quoted as saying, of Democrats, “to me, they’re not even people.”

This kind of hatred can be enticing. It’s like a drug that intensifies emotion and makes colors pop. For people leading uneventful, ordinary lives, it can add a jolt of excitement. For the increasingly large number of people whose lives are stressed daily, political hatred provides an outlet, a target, a scapegoat.

I can empathize and I suspect you can, too. We’re all flawed human beings, to be sure, but how can those people believe in such utterly destructive nonsense? How can they behave as they do? What hypocrites! What heartless, self-serving bastards! Look what they’ve done to America’s economy/education/healthcare/infrastructure/politics!

Can these divisions be bridged? I doubt it. It seems likelier that incidents like the one in Alexandria will only increase, with “partisans” from both sides doing the shooting. And each new outrage will only harden the hatred.

It would be helpful if the country could fully acknowledge this, if only to begin the process of constructing a solution. Increasingly, that solution seems to be that we will go our separate ways, either violently and chaotically, as at present, or formally and permanently with a political solution that codifies our divide in a way that makes sense.

Brilliant Fragments

Trump. Comey. Russia. All very important, yes, but also very exhausting to focus on exclusively. The mess in Washington is serious indeed but like all of our endeavors, it stems from the mysterious processes that govern human behavior. Granted, compulsive tweeting is a relatively new manifestation of troubled conduct. Still, it can sometimes help to examine behavioral patterns from another angle.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.

The writer Joshua Ferris is a case in point. He has an excellent grasp of the tragicomic nuances that underlie all our behavior, especially in intimate relationships, and The Dinner Party, his new book of short stories, may be a helpful distraction from the current news. Although there aren’t any direct political references to our present situation, the book may still help to put things in perspective.

Ferris is best known for his three novels (Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). Of these, the first and the third and most recent have been widely praised. Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, features a protagonist who is seized with an uncontrollable urge to walk and keep walking, no matter the consequences. It seems to have been widely disliked and/or misunderstood but I think it may be the best of the bunch, an existential journey that, as Tim Adams in the Guardian put it, shows us how “our biology will sooner or later remove us from the things we hold most dear.”

The Dinner Party is Ferris’s first short story collection and it continues the rather bleak existential outlook, leavened with flashes of humor, found in the novels. Some reviewers have savaged the book but the majority of reviews have been very positive. The stories vary somewhat in quality—stories in collections invariably do—but the best of them are very strong indeed. These include the title story, a devastating portrait of a disintegrating marriage and also the consequences of failing to know oneself, “A Night Out,” which deals with male infidelity, and “Fragments,” which counters with the female version.

The last story in the collection, “A Fair Price,” does have some direct relevance to America’s current social inequities. It concerns a clueless, self-involved privileged character and the day laborer he hires to help empty out a storage unit. The consequences of their interaction certainly gave me pause.

I think Joshua Ferris, only in his early forties, is one of the best writers currently working in America. If you’d like an extra helping of insight into the way a certain class of Americans (educated, liberal, urban) lives today, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dinner Party.

 

Denial and Destruction

I won’t spend much time on the twisted announcement reversing U. S. climate change policy that Trump made yesterday. There’s plenty of analysis regarding that already. Instead, I’d like to suggest you focus on something other than our buffoonish president for a moment. That something is the Republican Party itself, which MIT gadfly Noam Chomsky recently said is “racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life.”

Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012.
Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012. Photo: NY Daily News.

The GOP, and conservatives in general, have always been laggards when it comes to keeping pace with change—any sort of change. But today’s Republicans are another breed entirely. Motivated by a toxic combination of greed and hatred, and almost entirely devoid of empathy, the Republicans, as David Brooks puts it in today’s Times, “share [a] core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.”

Chomsky, in addressing the dangers this worldview and the Republicans pose, cites a 2013 Daedalus article by conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in arriving at his dire prognosis. They wrote that the Republican Party is now “ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Those words date from four years ago and their truth has only intensified in 2017. Moreover, Chomsky is not only considering climate change when he speaks of dangers to human survival but nuclear weapons as well.

Given what we saw yesterday in Washington, and given recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, we would do well to take Chomsky’s warning seriously.

An American Kakistocracy

Many of you probably intuit what a “kakistocracy” is but may be a little fuzzy on the exact definition. According to Wikipedia, a kakistocracy is “a state or country run by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens.” (Or, in the case of the United States, people who occupy all three categories simultaneously.)

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan
Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan. Photo: Salon.com

The word comes from the Greek kakistos (meaning “worst”) and kratos (meaning “rule”), thus meaning government by the worst people. Despite the Greek roots, the word was first used in English and was coined by author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.

In spite of its long history, the word’s usage has been infrequent. But I think the times we find ourselves in could make “kakistocracy” a strong candidate for 2017’s Word of the Year.

Trump’s election has obviously given the word a boost. As economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “[Trump is] surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for everything that is best in America. What we’re looking at, all too obviously, is an American kakistocracy—rule by the worst.”

I want to do my small part to promote widespread usage of the word, since in my view we are living in a moment when kakistocracy has supplanted democracy as our country’s governing principle. Democracy has in fact been subverted (perhaps with foreign assistance) to allow the rise of kakistocracy in America. This has been achieved through the canny use of social media and “alternative facts,” heavy Republican gerrymandering and a politically masterful stoking of widespread, free-floating resentment. Plus copious amounts of money, of course.

Our American kakistocracy runs far deeper than the three ugly (in every sense of the word) politicians shown on this page. A large portion of our citizenry has indeed been taught to hate all that is best in America, and cheer when the crass and the ignorant tear down another standard of civility or excellence. Everything that has traditionally represented progress in the U.S. and around the world—education, science, the arts, social integration—is now suspect, part of a “politically correct” elite which must be overturned.

Kakistocracy is in full flower thanks to the Trump administration, and the nearly 40% of U.S. citizens who still support it. This must change. But how?

30 Years of Creative Coaching

The Writers Studio, which I’ve covered previously on this site, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, there was a sold-out, standing-room-only reading at the Strand Bookstore in NYC last night, followed by a party for faculty, students and guests at a private apartment overlooking Union Square. There was even a 30th anniversary cake.

Mark Peterson, the Studio's San Francisco Director.
Mark Peterson, the Studio’s San Francisco Director. Photo: Thomas Pletcher/Writeside.com

Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who founded The Writers Studio, kicked off the evening’s remarks at the Strand. He seemed very pleased by the Studio’s durability and growth, if somewhat astonished by how quickly three decades have gone by. Schultz was followed by a parade of writers associated with what the New York Times has called “the most personal of the [writing] programs.” Perhaps my favorite piece of the evening was by Therese Eiben, the Studio’s Hudson Valley Director. This was a funny and frightening take on the perils of flying today, and all too evocative.

The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.
The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.

In addition to the reading and the party, The Writers Studio has commemorated the occasion with the publication of The Writers Studio at 30 (“Fiction and Poetry from the First 30 Years of the Landmark School of Creative Writing and Thinking”). The paperbound volume is 500 pages and contains a wide range of work from writers associated with the Studio, including the Studio’s advisory board and friends, teachers and students. Starting today, you should be able to order a copy directly from the publisher.

Department of Injustice

Of all the perverse and destructive appointments Trump has made since taking office, Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice may be the worst. Sessions, in my opinion an unreconstructed, ferret-faced racist of the worst sort—the sort with power—demonstrated just how destructive he is yet again yesterday, when his decision not to prosecute the police killers of Alton B.Sterling in Baton Rouge last year was announced. The determination not to file federal charges was made without notifying the Louisiana attorney general, the mayor of Baton Rouge or Mr. Sterling’s family.

The decision follows a newly implemented Sessions policy to back off from federal oversight of law enforcement agencies around the country. Sessions has said that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments, and that “[police] morale has suffered.”

In the video on this page, you can see that Mr. Sterling is pushed to the ground by the police and held there as one officer points a gun at his chest before shooting him point-blank.

Last night, around the Triple S Food Mart parking lot in Baton Rouge where Mr. Sterling was killed, people congregated and discussed the federal decision not to prosecute.

“I’m not surprised, because it happens all the time,” said Kosher Weber, 21, her voice cracking in anger. “Where do things go from here? There’s no justice. There’s no nothing.”

Derrick Brody, 45, said: “Over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said Mr. Sterling had been “shot in cold blood” and wrote on Twitter, “The DOJ’s decision not to pursue justice is a travesty.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. So did a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Police Department. She also declined to confirm the employment status of the two officers who had been under investigation, referring inquiries to the Justice Department.

This is one more sickening step backward for America.

An Enemy of the People

As we arrive at Trump’s 100-day landmark, there is an astonishingly wide array of catastrophic decisions to examine (the Korean peninsula, which is bubbling in the red zone as I write this, may turn out to be the most catastrophic of all).

Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone
Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Of the many abominable actions and statements we have had from this president and Congress since January, I think their hostility toward a free American press is among the most alarming. Trump’s characterization of the press as an “enemy of the American people” is straight out of Orwell. Not coincidentally, this governmental animosity is reflected in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit, non-governmental group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières). The U.S. slipped two places, to rank 43rd out of 180 countries surveyed. The United Kingdom also slipped two places, largely due to laws permitting generalized surveillance and a proposal for a new espionage act that could result in journalists and whistle-blowers being prosecuted as spies. Even so, at number 40, the UK still ranks ahead of America.

If you’ve heard of (or remember) COINTELPRO, the FBI’s “counterintelligence program” of some 50 years back which involved massive amounts of illegal surveillance, then having the president refer to the press as an “enemy of the people” should be especially chilling. The FBI of the 50s, 60s and 70s was not even close to today’s NSA in terms of surveillance capabilities. No wonder major news organizations like the New York Times go to great lengths to try to provide confidential access to members of the public who would like to submit tips. We’re way beyond Watergate days, when a reporter could safely meet an anonymous source in an underground parking garage.

Still, the First Amendment remains on the books. The Times can publish stories showing how deeply compromised the Trump administration is, and I can publish this humble blog. But—and it’s a big “but”—things can change very quickly.

Trump and his cronies are setting a very dangerous tone where press freedom is concerned. Already, a very large proportion of U.S. adults have been convinced that mainstream media is corrupt and untruthful. Already, U.S. education has been undermined (quite deliberately) to the point where today’s young people need to be taught how to distinguish truth from falsehood—the ability doesn’t come naturally any longer.

Ignorance is extremely dangerous. That’s why, upon Trump’s election, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” was moved forward by 30 seconds. We’re now at two and a half minutes to midnight. Let’s hope that the “major, major conflict” with North Korea which Trump is threatening doesn’t bring us any closer. Let’s also hope that a free American press keeps shining a light on this disastrous administration, for those are are still able and willing to see.