This was a keynote speech I originally gave at Writing the Rockies 2015.
The author of Beowulf describes his monster Grendel as maere mearcstapa—an infamous “march-stepper”, one who walks about or haunts the border lands. Grendel was of course exceedingly cranky, especially when his Danish neighbors kept him awake at night with their loud music and drunken orgies every time they came home from their sports and battles. Sure, Grendel may have perhaps gone a bit too far when he emerged from his mother’s home, friendless and hungry, to stumble across the heath in an angry, sleep-deprived stupor to crash the party—“Hey, quiet down, you kids!”—bursting the door from its hinges and eating them up like the…Danishes…they… were. Maybe he was addicted to Danishes. He should have known, as all addicts know, you should HALT when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.
Murder and mayhem and…Danishes…But not all mearcstapas are dangerous monsters. Aragorn, for instance, is Grendel’s antithesis. Given Tolkien’s scholarly defense of Beowolf, he probably had just that in mind when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, along with using Grendel as a prototype for Gollum. But Aragorn didn’t leave home to go out and terrorize and lay waste…instead, he left his people to find his true home, his true identity, working all the while to heal the land and the people of Middle Earth. He was transgressive in his work, never settling for the status quo or for the dark, downward movement of power. More important than that, he was a steward of the land and people, a caretaker. Healing came when he accepted the truth about himself, helped the disparate and fighting cultures rise above their differences and categorizations. And the peace they forged among themselves also healed the land itself, the trees and rocks and wildlife that had been ravaged by the commodification and pragmatic utilitarianism of war and thoughtless industry.
And so Aragorn transforms the original idea of mearcstapa, elevates it, humanizes it, so that now it is an apt description of artists and creative catalysts, of poets and writers of fiction and screenplays, of movie producers and book publishers, of musicians and opera singers, actors and dancers. A mearcstapa leaves the comfort and security of her home and her community to stalk the borderlands of culture, seeing what she can see, doing what she can do, returning home after a time with tales and insight and wisdom, perhaps even body or two, of a kind.
My friend Makoto Fujimura, an internationally-renowned artist and author, is, as far as I know, the first to make this connection between mearcstapa and artist. In his book Culture Care, he says,
Artists often confound pragmatic labels and bristle against the inbuilt dehumanization and fragmentation of categories. In that sense, all artists are mearcstapas, guiding us toward a world of abundance and complexity…[the work of artists] are antidotes to the utilitarian drive for commercial and ideological gain, remedies for the poison in the river of culture. They offer our dying culture unfading bouquets, gifts of enduring beauty that we do not want to refuse.
What sets artists from the Mountain West, and I’m including writers here, apart from the other regions in the country is our relationship to, indeed our interdependence upon, the land. Of course land is important everywhere else in the country, but here the land–the crags and couloirs, the Blue Spruce and the crashing creek, the Camp Robber and the fresh, thick rain, the tundra and wetlands and desert–is itself a character. She is as strong and brutal in her beauty as she is nurturing and inviting. In a word, she is transcendent, and that is why so many still flock to her rocky shores to seek their fortunes—some take it by force, some are broken on the rocks, many stay and are forever changed.
But the things that poison the stream of culture that Mako describes–over-commodification and pragmatic utilitarianism– also poison the land. He says, with my additions:
Cultural [and natural] fragmentation comes when we fall into the trap of treating survival as the bottom line…when we forget the importance of beauty for our lives and the necessity of sharing the experience of beauty in community.
Today’s art [and land] has been commoditized to such an extent that we often see commerce as the prevailing goal, and value the arts and land only as transactional tools to achieve fame and wealth.
[This is] utilitarian pragmatism, [and it] is tied to a world in which vision is stripped of transcendence.”
Environmentalists abound out here because of this poison to the land, and they make great pragmatic, science-based arguments for preservation and conservation…but they ignore the poisoned stream of culture—which is as important an ecosystem as the wetlands of the Crested Butte and San Luis valleys, requiring at least as much nurture and care. Our culture is rooted in the land. And I would argue that when our culture is poisoned, the land itself is sickened.
If you drive north of Gunnison toward Crested Butte, you’ll a sign welcoming you to Gunnison National Forest. The sign also announces the tagline for the forest: Land of Many Uses. Ok, yes, but…NO! This is a political statement we are forced to use to defend the land, but at the same time, as a slogan, it pumps more poison into the land and our culture. I wonder what Mt. Crested Butte thinks about our “many uses” as the cranes and semis loaded down with expensive building materials roar around her skirt, the Texan ATVs and unending strings of dirt bikes kicking up dust and noise, slowly stripping her down? Are the Three Disciples chuckling as they watch over the Taylor River Valley which is half-drowned by a reservoir and slowly succumbing to desertification? Maybe they’re shaking their heads in disgust, or dismay. Maybe they just sigh as they watch the sun set, nodding in understanding with Mesa Verde further to the southwest, where 20 to 30 thousand Ancestral Puebloans tromped around and hunted and built their homes in the cliffs from 700 AD until they finally vanished almost 900 years ago.
The arts are also victim to the poison of a survival mentality–of vision stripped of transcendence by over-commodification and utilitarian pragmatism. Because of the rise and industry of the creatives and makers here, Colorado is one of the top three states leading the nation’s economic recovery. This is something we can all be proud of, of course, but the poison is already seeping in to take advantage of this. One of the state’s bills that serves as a major source of funding for the arts is sunsetting this year. The original charter required a performance component for every program it funds, a requirement which has been largely ignored…until now. From a pragmatic point of view, this requirement makes sense because performances are easy to measure, quantifying the “success” and “impact” of the grantee’s program. But just because beauty and goodness and truth are difficult to quantify, should they lose their funding? And guess which branch of the arts will suffer the most if this requirement is enforced? The literary arts, as usual.
So who will care about our land, poisoned by greed and pragmatism? Who will care for our blackened river of culture? Who are the caretakers of the Mountain West?
They are of course the ones who stalk the borders of both culture and landscape. The Western mearcstapa. The beauty-seekers. The artists. The creative catalysts. The patrons of the arts (without whom culture makers and caretakers could not function in our poisoned milieu). And also the stay-at-home moms and dads who create a generative lifestyle for their families. The single parents who spend the few precious dollars they have to buy a small bouquet of flowers for the dinner table. The seriously mentally ill who scrape together enough of their buried souls to paint or write or scream their broken dreams. The chronically homeless who sleep by the tamed South Platte River, sharing what scraps they find with each other, mumbling or shouting their defiance at utilitarian systems that keep them down.
The Western mearcstapa is the Quaker who roams the mountains and deserts in contemplative silence, returning to share with us “the goodness of geographical and contemplative wildness.” Listen to Peter Anderson’s words from his book First Church of the Higher Elevations:
Wildness, as I understand it, is a self-sustaining dimension of life beyond the confines of human control. Encountered outwardly in a place or inwardly in contemplative practice, it has been an opening, centering, and healing force in my life. Wilderness is a place where natural systems are left largely untrammeled. Similarly, there are deeper dimensions of self beyond the controlling ego, the ego which poet Gary Snyder describes as living “in a little cubicle near the gate” that opens into wildness. Beyond that gate, one’s inward ecology takes care of itself. This is the soul’s equivalent of a wild place. It was a place I knew best inwardly when I was able to be still.
My old friend and mentor Paul Lacey used to emphasize three questions in his freshman humanities classes: What do you know? How do you know it? So what? What I know now, as I reread this book, is that I don’t know much about anything as vast as creation, nor can I say much about any Force or forces that may guide it forward. The word “God” is at best a symbol of what we can never really name. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wisely says, “All good symbols of God drive toward their own transcendence,” which leaves me wondering how any mention of “the Big G” is very helpful anymore. It’s too easy to get mired down in our own stories, which the word “God” only seems to encourage.
What I also know is that given some silence, stillness, and a healthy dose of wildness, I can do some deep listening. And if I’m attentive, I may feel a nudge, some subtle guidance toward this or that choice, which in the end leaves me better off than I would have been otherwise. Quakers refer to the Inward Teacher, language that fits my experience, but with which I travel gently, since I also understand silence as the best way forward in discerning any truth. My experience of inward guidance might best be likened to the words of poet Rainer Rilke’s words which turn up later in this book: “A gesture waves us on, answering our own wave,/but what we feel is the wind in our faces.”
The Western mearcstapa is the atheist who, despite doing his best to stare at the void without a crutch or flinch, finds himself filled with the beauty he discovers there, motivated by it to live a good and beautiful life. Listen to this poem called “When Buzzards Return to Crestone” by Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick from his collection Language for the Living and the Dead:
We’d spooked a dozen dark cruisers
off perches in a cottonwood copse
ablaze with gold leaves, and they rose
prehistoric mad black, a flapping
racket ruining the creekgully quiet
and he said, Capistrano can
keep its swallows. I’ll take this flock of
turkey vultures any day. He couldn’t say
what brought them back to this drainage
off Sangre de Cristo slopes, maybe
roadkill on Hwy 17, though guts
lie smeared on many other roads.
I know it’s spring when they return, he said,
as the carrion craft circled the grove
and one by one settled again on
limbs thick enough to hold them,
their ugly beautiful bald heads red
in October sun. They’ll leave soon enough
and that means winter on the way.
Nobody ever writes poems for vultures
except to curse them or render them
symbols of wretched death awaiting.
Winged hyenas, scavengers, call them
any pejorative term but remember
they can fly and you cannot, they
clean up the mess your car leaves behind,
they see their mates as lovely in the trees.
The Western mearcstapa is the Buddhist whose own contemplation of the void clarifies the clutter and noise, pointing to the ultimate uselessness of pragmatism and commodity. Listen to this poem by Sigman Byrd entitled “The Great Troublemaker Takes in the View”, from his collection Wake Up, Sleepwalker:
I was sitting under a soaring cliff face and listening
to the icy rush of water, like a Buddhist monk
in an ancient forest monastery,
letting heaven and earth take their turns,
when a feeling coursed through my body
as if this total stranger vegging on my sofa
was channel surfing,
and the sudden, sinking awareness
that I hadn’t lived a more purpose-driven life
interrupted like an infomercial
for the maximum ram-jam ab cruncher.
I dipped my hand in the water and drew an arrow
in the thick, muddy silt. I imagined
a tingling filament of calm
threading into my arms. But my thoughts
like an old LP record kept skipping
to a top-forty song about a nagging lack
and then onto another song about the self-cleaning,
aerodynamically designed city of tomorrow
where I hoped to move one day.
I got back in the car and drove home.
I cracked open the latest Deepak Chopra.
With splendid powers of concentration,
I put on my yoga pants and practiced Downward Dog
and Bird of Paradise on the deck
in the middle of the afternoon.
And just when I thought it was safe,
I heard a tinkling bell as on the edge of the yard,
as if some lovable, loyal mutt had bounded over the fence
with his toy, panting, tossing it in the air,
racing over so we could play. Oh, mind,
incorrigible creature of habit,
your trigger-happy synapses, your voluptuous neural pathways
blipped with another distraction:
the kid across the street bouncing
a blue basketball, his oversized Lebron James jersey,
which reminded me
of the two-year, $42 million deal
the basketball superstar signed to play in Cleveland.
The Western mearcstapa is the woman who survived a rape during her formative years, who finds healing for her body and mind and soul in the wilderness of Phantom Canyon, at the base of Nipple Mountain of all places, and at the same time discovering the many wounds suffered by the Western landscape and native people in our rape of them. Listen to Kathryn Winograd in Phantom Canyon:
“My grandparents say when I was a young girl I would herd the sheep to the high mesa and talk to them like I was Miss Navajo,” Victoria says. “I wanted it so much.”
She smiles out of her black-framed glasses, her face, like the other Navajo women, round and smooth as a brown berry. She stands close to me. I bend down toward her, utterly conscious of my long limbs that stretch me out almost three heads higher than her.
She stops for a moment, then holds her hands out in front of her, echoing the roundness of a globe.
“I remember holding peaches in my hands. My grandparents grew them.” Her fingers squeeze the empty air. “They were so beautiful, so full. But now . . .” She looks at me. “I wonder what I was holding.”
We have spent the morning at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, at a seminar on the history of uranium mining on the reservation. Because of the United States’ nuclear arms race in the 1940s, close to four million tons of uranium ore were mined throughout the Navajo Nation’s 27,000 square miles. When the demand for ore weakened, more than one thousand uranium mines were abandoned, riddling the red and yellow sandstones of the reservation like radioactive catacombs. The Navajo, willing workers for the few dollars earned digging out the mines, became the victims of a mass deception by mining executives, the U.S. Government, and even their own Navajo Tribal Council—who knew of the contamination left behind not only in the mines but in the uranium ore left outside them, but were too poor to instigate reclamation projects beyond nailing a few boards across the mouths of the empty mines. So they kept silent.
Victoria and the other Navajo Nation teachers remember playing in the abandoned mines as late as the 1980s. They write journal entries for me about the mines’ sweet darkness against the blinding desert heat, the coolness of deep underground waters. Some Navajo families scavenged the mines for the perfectly round plugs, carved out of test stone, to grind their food. Others built their homes out of the waste rock, these “hot” houses of the nomadic scattered unmarked throughout the reservation, and inhabited still. The uranium mines blighted a whole generation ancestral to these teachers with cancers, young sheepherding mothers drinking from the oasis in the desert, formed by the empty tailing pits below the mines, and giving birth to children with club feet, retardation, and weakened immune systems.
A genetic disorder, the doctors surmised, unique only to the Navajo people.
Victoria shows me a picture of herself as Miss Navajo Nation, essence of the powerful matriarchal figures in Navajo religion: First Woman, White Shell Woman, Changing Woman. In traditional Navajo dress of tiered velvet and animal skin moccasins, Victoria is serene and beautiful. Now, she holds her hands to her throat.
“What’s the ticking machine called that tests for radiation?” she asks.
“Geiger counter,” I tell her. She asks me how to spell it and repeats the letters one by one, her fingers at her throat ticking.
What I have in common with the Navajo lies beneath this Colorado granite, red as their volcanic sandstone, erupted here out of the soul of the earth by a mass of glacial ice plowing incrementally across the land some millions of years ago, and in the “glory holes” that dot my mountain meadow, the small and sometimes large craters pick-axed by gold-fevered miners of the 1800s looking for the white and rose veins of quartz where sometimes gold fine as web adhered, and still does today.
The Western mearcstapa is the Native American, the Chicana. Juliana Aragon Fatula is both, embodying the native and the immigrant. Through her stories and poetry, she reminds us that we are all of us human, even when everything works against the poorest of us:
“The Mexican in Me” from Red Canyon Falling on Churches
can’t watch the news
gives me the pinche blues
jita goes to school
in east los
thinks she’s cool
daddy works so frickin’ hard
just so she can have a car
she’s a vata loca
she’s a runaway, pendeja
don’t she see her daddy’s breakin’
he’s tired, he’s crackin’
works too much, too long
never home, jita’s always alone.
jita’s sneakin’ out the window
she’s drinkin’ down below
partying with her homies
she feels so very lonely.
daddy better watch out
jita’s headed for a fall
bound to make that call,
“dad, I’m in jail
please, I need bail
daddy I need you.”
jita’s only fifteen
mama’s a crack queen
aint got no mama no mo’
no role model
she just wants to be cool
so she ditches school
can’t watch the news
just get the fuckin’ blues
no news is good news
my mama used to say
don’t say nothin’
if you got nothin’ good to say
my mama taught me everything
‘cept how to deal with this crack thing
guess I’ll just hit the pipe
so much for this pinche life.
jita’s gonna learn the hard way
just like her mama,
the crack queen of L.A.
These are the ones generating art that remind us of the strong tie binding human to human and human to land. But art here is not all serious. The mountains are not merely forboding. The West is also a place to rediscover your inner child, to cut loose and play. The air itself has a magical way of drawing out your true self from its protective cover. The deep blue sky and bright sunlight peels open your eyes and raises your head, and the mountains and flowered meadows say, “Come play. Come play.” And so the border-stalkers obey, bending their craft to play and infuse the world with joy, which is also made from goodness and beauty and truth.
There are few writers as playful, and skillful in his play, as J. Diego Frey. A clownish mearcstapa, he is often transgressive in his play, crashing through our mores and discomfort to remind us of our humanity. This is his poem “Ted’s Shirt,” from his collection called The Year the Eggs Cracked:
This is the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
These are the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
This is the soap that washed off the dirt that covered the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
This is the tune so soulful and rich, track five of the album that gave him the blues, on sale at the store that sold me the soap that washed off the dirt that covered the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
This is the activity condemned by the Pope, practiced in closets and bedrooms and sinks, most often indulged in to nobody’s hurt but awkward to be caught at on somebody’s floor, that takes place to the tune so soulful and rich, track five of the album that gave him the blues, on sale at the store that sold me the soap that washed off the dirt that covered the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
These are the conflicts that rise from beliefs of Germans and Bushmen and Muslims and Jews, in search of relief from some immortal itch for meaning and mercy and most often hope, who fight with each other over whose truth is whose, and what you should eat, and who heaven is for, in a ceaseless distraction of violence and hurt instead of the activity condemned by the Pope, that’s practiced in closets and bedrooms and sinks, most often indulged in to nobody’s hurt but awkward to be caught at on somebody’s floor, that takes place to the tune so soulful and rich, track five of the album that gave him the blues, on sale at the store that sold me the soap that washed off the dirt that covered the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
This is the eventual descent into chaos, an entropic excitement of yellows and pinks as the world blows apart from its mantle to core after one or another apocalypse brews and submerges our Eden in so many griefs that they can’t be discarded like clothes in a ditch, to leave us at long last standing nude and alert with an open perspective and unlimited scope immune to the fear in control of the pathos, the supermen master race heroes of lore who held on to the fire while protecting the fuse that civilization retained at it brinks as a warning to anyone unwilling to cope with the upswell of conflicts that rise from beliefs of Germans and Bushmen and Muslims and Jews, in search of relief from some immortal itch for meaning and mercy and most often hope, who fight with each other over whose truth is whose, and what you should eat, and who heaven is for, in a ceaseless distraction of violence and hurt instead of the activity condemned by the Pope, that’s practiced in closets and bedrooms and sinks, most often indulged in to nobody’s hurt but awkward to be caught at on somebody’s floor, that takes place to the tune so soulful and rich, track five of the album that gave him the blues, on sale at the store that sold me the soap that washed off the dirt that covered the shoes that went with the plaid shirt that Ted wore.
Robert Garner McBrearty also plays with genre, the bizarre, and our programmed expectations in order to tear off the thick hide that often covers our deeper emotions and longings, our humanity. Here’s a short chapter from his forthcoming debut novel entitled The Western Lonesome Society. The main character Jim is an English professor and failed writer. Throughout the book, Jim’s imagination replaces his concept of reality as he tries reconcile a series of kidnappings in his family, his identity, and a place to call home. This chapter is called “Of Quilting Shows and Counseling”:
In the makeshift room above their garage, Jim lies on the old couch as dust motes drift in the sunlight, and appearing through a glint of light, the therapist sighs, arranges one thick buttock in the swivel chair, crooks his torso, settles in the other thick buttock. He folds his hands over his plump belly. “So,” he says in his stentorian voice, “what do you have for me today?”
“I wake up all night long, imagining someone breaking into my house. I guess it’s not all that unusual. I was kidnapped as a child and I guess that had a damaging effect on me.”
The therapist clears his throat. “Are you a trained therapist?”
“Then why would you leap to the conclusion that the kidnapping damaged you in some way? Doesn’t that strike you as a flimsy excuse? People go through much worse things all the time.”
“I suppose so.”
“Repeat after me: I was kidnapped as a child.”
“I was kidnapped as a child.”
“Okay. Now how did you feel, saying that?”
“I felt a little sad.”
“Sad? You got away, didn’t you? Case closed.”
“And a few years after Roughhound, there was the Major.”
“A child molester.”
“Oh my God,” he mutters. “Next you’re going to be telling me that boring story as well.” He rubs his head. “I don’t think I can stand this. Let’s change the subject. Tell me about that golf quilt again.”
Jim sighs, but recounts the last summer’s vacation from the college. In a sleepy town in Oregon, Jim’s wife forces him to go with her to a quilting show at the Town Hall, which serves as a combination central meeting place and the fire station. A long time ago, when they were first married, he served as a volunteer fire fighter. When the siren went off, he’d boldly throw down his dinner fork. They had an unreliable car in those days, so he’d leap a wooden fence and sprint a half mile across a meadow to arrive panting at the station, ready to strap on the heavy yellow jacket. He dreamed of coming home to tell his wife how he’d dragged someone out of a burning home, but many of the fires involved uninhabited dwellings. He was mostly relegated to the inglorious role of “broom man,” where he would sweep up ash after a fire. He was relieved when a more professional crew took over the firehouse and released the volunteers from service.
The quilting show is not the sort of thing he goes to willingly, but they are visiting relatives in this bucolic town in Oregon and attendance at the Fourth of July weekend quilting show is a requirement. He survives the annual ritual by imagining Comanches laying siege to the Town Hall. His wife even makes their two teenage boys attend. But there is a payoff. They know, from previous years, that once they pass through the quilting show in the front of the Town Hall, they will come to the pancake and bacon breakfast. The boys speed through the hanging quilts at a dead run and arrive safely at the pancake table.
Jim is not so lucky, though. His wife captures his arm and makes him walk beside her as they study each quilt hanging from the rafters. His wife envisions buying one for their bedroom at home, solicits his opinions. He is neutral about their aesthetic appeal, mostly checks price tags, shakes his head no. As his stomach growls, he wonders what’s taking the Comanches so long to strike. But then he draws up with a sudden stop, eyes widening in awe. There are squares in the quilt and in each square there’s a man golfing. In each square, he’s in progressive stages of his swing. How glorious is the quilted little golfer’s swing! The sunlight beams on the quilt.
The therapist works his thick buttocks around on the chair. “Here, get up. Show me the swing. Slowly now.”
Jim stands. He addresses the imaginary ball, starts a slow backswing, emulating the quilted golfer.
“That’s nice,” the therapist says. “That’s very nice.”
With a sigh, the therapist assumes his own comfy position on the couch. He folds his trimmed fingernails over his belly. “The wrist, arm alignment, the tuck of the chin. The quilt captured all that?”
The therapist closes his eyes. “Okay, Jim, here’s the deal. I’m willing to listen from time to time, I’ll take as much as I can, but when I can’t take any more there will be silence. Do you understand? All right, so you have a problem with this childhood thing. You yourself were kidnapped. And you had two ancestors who were kidnapped by the Comanches, and you worry constantly about your own children.”
“I wouldn’t say constantly.”
“Who asked your opinion? Now, I’m going to snooze for a little here while you tell me about your own children’s lives. Generalities will do. Personally, I find childhood most uninteresting.”
He dozes off as Jim talks about his own children. He recalls football and baseball seasons, swimming lessons, Happy Meals, gymnastics.
“Boring,” his therapist intones from the couch in a groggy voice. He tells him of the time one of them asked if there were a frog in heaven, the reply being that perhaps there might be room for a frog in heaven, when it was revealed he had said fog. Was there a fog in heaven? He tells him of the way their high-pitched voices were like a serenade to him, before the voices changed, grew deep as they turned into young men. Tells him of the way that one could swing back and forth on the monkey bars for a half an hour or the way another made a thousand bounces on the trampoline, counting them out one by one and making him count along.
Probably, he hovered over them too much. Checked too many doors and windows in the night.
The family read, the family sang. It wasn’t all happiness. He yelled sometimes. Who knows how much damage is done, but they are in their teen years now, and it is a new ballgame, one he can hardly keep up with. He feels like a volunteer firefighter, arrived windblown and helpless to meet their new needs.
All these people–these artists, these creative catalysts, including the “non-artists” who find ways to live generative lives despite the basic drive to survive—all these people, “gathered together,” as Mako says, “can serve as a seawall or a breakwater against the currents of utilitarianism and commodification that erode our humanity,” and consequently, I would add, our land.
I myself am a creative catalyst, a lover of all the arts. And as a publisher, I am a cultural caretaker by profession. I am responsible for caring for our culture by nurturing writers, caring for them so that the culture they create can grow and blossom, infusing all of our lives, and the land with which we live, with beauty and goodness and truth. Conundrum Press is a for-profit company, and it is a reality that I have to pay attention to the financial bottom-line for survival. But I have multiple bottom lines—caring for my authors, is one; supporting cultural programs for disadvantaged youth is another.
The primary mission of Conundrum Press is to publish poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction from the best voices of the West in order bring this last frontier of American literature into the national spotlight. We’ve published Pushcart Prize winners, Colorado Book Award winners, Colorado’s poet laureate and Denver’s poet laureate. As you’ve heard in this talk, we strive to represent a range of voices that reflects the diversity of gender and ethnicity and background in the West. We’ve launched The Rocky Mountain Poetry Series, which each year features one collection from an emerging poet, one from a master poet, and one anthology from a state in the region, starting, as you might expect, with Colorado.
So much for the philosophy behind what we—all of you and all of us at Conundrum Press—are up to. But why should anyone go out of their way to support a small press like Conundrum, or relatively unknown authors from a particular region? Why not just buy the popular stuff that’s easy to find?
You’ve no doubt heard the buzz from the buy-local movement. As with Mako’s words, I’ve taken the liberty to borrow some of the movement’s arguments from their main website and twist them to serve my own purposes. As a side note, since we have not drawn out all the cultural poison yet, you’ll recognize within these arguments the language of pragmatic utilitarianism. So:
- You should care about supporting regional small publishers because it will have an economic multiplier effect.
Readers, authors, and small publishers in your town buy more often from other authors, readers, small publishers (and independent bookstores!) in your town, which recirculates more money in your region. Since authors, readers, small presses, and independent bookstores live right there in your community, the profits will stay in your economy. The big six publishers . . . no, wait, the big five publishers . . . hang on, Harper just bought Harlequin, so . . . the big four publishers, are big enough. Does Rupert Murdoch need to line his pockets with yet more cash? Probably not. Do these publishers publish better literature? Sometimes . . . because they can pay for it. But is the sum of all of their books of a higher quality than the sum of all the books from a small press like, say, Conundrum Press? Definitely not. We publish better books more consistently than Harper Collins. Why wouldn’t you make the switch?
Also, all the other regions in the country have had their time in the national literary limelight—except probably Hawaii. The American West is the last frontier of American literature, which is strange because, besides perhaps New York City, the country’s best hopes and dreams still live and die on the promising yet unforgiving landscape of the Rockies. The artistic and literary talent here is world class, and the rest of the country should know that you can come here to be single, transient, fit, and stoned if you want, but you can also holistically “live the life” of the body, mind, and soul on these rocky slopes. So when you invest in the literature of the American West, you are investing in the cultural, as well as the financial, health of the region.
- You should care about supporting your regional small publishers because it will promote sustainability.
Purchasing literature made closer to home reduces celebrity hot air use and shortens the supply chain, keeping you more connected to who, where, and how your literature is produced. And because there is so much noise out there—such as TV shows that want to be watched, games that want to be played, music that wants to be listened to, ads that want to influence you, news that wants to depress you, pot that wants to stone you, social media that wants to assimilate you, movies that want to stupefy you, and yes even books that want you to read them because, like in junior high, everyone else is—the best authors, the small presses who publish them, and the independent bookstores that sell and celebrate them, need the peoples of their regional communities to consciously choose them over all others in order to survive.
- You should care about supporting your regional small publishers because your support fosters community.
Local authors, small presses, and independent bookstores are more connected to your community and more likely to support community projects (like feeding starving poets), because just like you, they also have literary hobbies, go to poetry reading events, volunteer to edit or design books, buy literature at their favorite bookshops, and donate to their favorite poor author charities.
As the miners and ranchers of the Old West learned the hard way, individual and cultural health does not happen out on the lone prairie. It happens in community.
Comm-unity: a unity through communication. Not communication from a single voice, of course, but an appreciation and respect for the myriad voices springing from the common experience of love for the landscape and the dreams and lives that fill it. And when avid readers read the best authors their region has to offer, a special connection forms. Conversations and friendships between readers, and between readers and writers, is naturally fostered and a strong and healthy community can be built.
Let me end with a poem that calls to mind the importance of in-the-flesh, living-the-life experience, of resisting the poisoning of our land by over-commodification and utilitarian pragmatism. It’s called “In Reserve” by master poet and western mearcstapa Bruce Berger from his forthcoming collection, Midnight Rant. And in the spirit of community, I’ll need your help. We’ll do this in a call-and-response form. I’ll read three lines and then you’ll say the refrain “Coffee Table National Park”. Ok? Let’s practice it once…. Great. Ok, here we go:
Alone against a darkening sky stands one
wind-blasted tree whose hypertextured bark
catches the last ray of failing sun
through Coffee Table National Park.
With wings outspread the osprey lights, the fox
stares straight into your eye, the patriarch
bull moose surveys you from the topmost rocks
of Coffee Table National Park.
Miraculous, the way the nearby seeks
to limn the far, the way close branches arc
uncannily above the distant peaks
of Coffee Table National Park.
Each day’s perfection telescopes the time:
it’s always just an hour before dark
or one hour after dawn, when light is prime,
in Coffee Table National Park.
As if it rained last week, the fields are all
insane with bloom, although nothing so stark
as rain itself is ever seen to fall
in Coffee Table National Park.
No cirro-stratus ever dim the dunes,
though shapely vapors are allowed to spark
orgasmic sunsets over the lagoons
of Coffee Table National Park.
Iguana with iguana, bat with bat,
in glossy twos the mated ride the ark
that rides your lap, that happy Ararat
of Coffee Table National Park.
The nubbin of a bumper never juts.
the race behind the lens has left no mark
of contrails, condoms, film cans, bags or butts
in Coffee Table National Park.
Perspective, sun and species always mesh.
Remember to go light when you embark.
You’ll find you will not even need your flesh
in Coffee Table National Park.