V8N3: April 2002
Volume 8 Number 3
Table of Contents
When an artist's work symbolizes of a desirable image or place in life, its potential as a product increases as its appeal meets the interests of the viewer.
As South by Southwest wraps up another year, I feel like I should say a few pithy bon mots, but what hasn't been said already? It's about music. It's about money.
I have come from the school of thought that publishing a book is not an easy task. It's not something that you just announce that you are going to do; but that's Geoff. He went out to Barnes and Noble to look for books on how to publish and returned with only one guide: Getting Your Book Published for Dummies.
Upon a whim, I petri-dished twenty-five samples in ample enough time to hold true to the placebo. Deemed scientific heroes, we dreamed of Nobel pieces and daily press releases.
While there are a host of other publications that serve the South Asian American community, most of them provide news or information without analysis. A new journal will publish its first issue this fall, [and] provide a unique forum for the community to express the many facets of its political identity
There is this public body appointed to commission some permanent artwork for the new Latino cultural history museum. The panel puts out a call for submissions, collects the materials, judges the entries and selects three artists for the project. All hell breaks loose.
Before I was a poet, I was a gardener. Most seasons, I ended up with more tomatoes, peppers, onions and, of course, zucchini than I knew what to do with. Luckily, I was also a cook who relished homemade sauces.
In various academic and applied disciplines, there is a tendency to use multi-disciplinary approaches to solve problems. This indicates a growing belief in combining disciplinary methods to achieve a complete understanding of a subject as it relates to a larger cultural whole. In the fine arts many artists apply this approach to their work as well. A discipline commonly referenced by artists is commercial art. But when the methods of commercial art are applied to a work of art, it is often difficult to recognize whether these methods are understood from a multi-disciplinary position or whether the art maker simply has absorbed them. As a result, a piece that serves as a promotional tool for the artist may be mistaken for an artwork that seeks to be aware. The fundamental difference here is between the practice of commercial methods on the one hand and the pursuit of knowledge on the other.
The commercial arts field accelerates the exchange of goods by increasing their appeal to the general public. The relationship between the consumer and the product is based on the conjecture of an anonymous person's need and the product's appeal. This paradigm also is present in fine arts practices. When an artist's work symbolizes of a desirable image or place in life, its potential as a product increases as its appeal meets the interests of the viewer. Although this product isn't necessarily consumed through purchasing, it is consumed by the viewer's endorsement of the artist's image. This is similar to how one can convey his or her identity to others, based on the display of individual selection and taste, through the purchasing of a product (the right pair of shoes, for example). The artist's product, however, is a vehicle that supports not only the viewer's identity but also the status of the artist.
As the commercial potential for a work of art increases, the work that at one time only utilized subjects of popular culture actually becomes a product of popular culture itself. Many examples support this tendency, including much of the artwork of Andy Warhol, whose trademark images, such as Campbell's Soup (1965) or Marilyn (1964), commonly appear in advertising today. The irony in the case of Warhol is, of course, that his work was developed using sensibilities about commercial art practices.
Some important questions to bring up at this point are: Does a commercial sensibility help to expedite a work's status in culture? And does the work then become recognized as a commercial image? Or, does it remain recognizable as a work of art? Whichever the case may be, the commercial art field takes notice when any work of art is celebrated by our culture. The countless images by Munch, Monet, Renoir, Klimt or Mondrian that appear on souvenirs prove that when a work of art becomes a cultural icon, it appears "ready-made" to those with a commercial sensibility and becomes game for use in the selling of products. The justification of these practices from the perspective of the fine arts discipline is often that the work is a product of "cross-pollination" or a demonstration of the "blurring of boundaries." But what seems more truthful is the artist's contempt for the authority of disciplines that require good reasoning for their practices.
It is true that in fields of competition, one way of standing out is to find an area of ground that is not occupied by many others. However, once others catch on, the opportunity is divided, and the secrets of the practice eventually become common knowledge. When this happens, the same justifications employed by established disciplines become required either by a more aware public or by the artist in need of finding new, individual ground.
Tonight I am a diagram in slices,
one quarter sweet ecstatic cream filled,
legs still jelly from our Billie Holiday afternoon.
Another quarter minced meat,
vexed and wanting,
impractical woman wanting,
subdivided, wanting you to
1. miss me;
2. tell me again some night
while I'm washing your dishes,
it's time to come to bed.
The rest is plain filled,
going about this solitary
business of living.
Stazja McFadyen is author of Garland (PoetWords Press, 2002) and a contributor to Vital Signs: The Primal Sessions, a compilation CD of women's spoken word (NoFloProductions). She is venue coordinator for the Austin International Poetry Festival and publishes two weekly e-newsletters: Map of Austin Poetry and PoEmPath.
No Contest by Albert Huffstickler
I looked death in
the eye. He blinked.
I said, "I won. You
Blinked." He said,
"I'm still here. You
don't dare blink."
In memory of Albert Huffstickler, 1928-2002
Fresh Plus Grocery, Hyde Park, photo by Rachelle Rouse
As South by Southwest wraps up another year, I feel like I should say a few pithy bon mots, but what hasn't been said already? It's about music. It's about money. And for those not directly involved in music and/or media, it is either a smorgasbord of entertainment or a good reason to avoid the downtown area for a week. For the haves, it is just another industry shindig. For the have-nots, it is a source of frustration, grapes dangling out of reach, etc., etc. And for a few, it actually is an opportunity to jump a few rungs up the industry ladder, meet the right people and advance a career. But that is old news. One could argue that SXSW has not changed its character since its inception, that the infusion of money, hype and hordes of visiting hopefuls have simply allowed the event to manifest itself fully and to replicate the class stratification of American culture in general.
It started out as an Indie thing -- a way for those outside the mainstream to network. But was that its essential character, since the goal has always been to get into the mainstream, to get a piece of the pie? Some of the SXSW panels over the years have explored ways to create your own niche, to make industry resources work for you, but mostly it's about ways to break in, to produce better demo tapes and promo packs and to create your own buzz. Essentially, it's about how to do well on your job interview.
That said, I did have a few encounters that reminded me that a community, however loosely connected, does exist outside the industry bandwagon. For example, several industry reps noted, or admitted, that they didn't attend SXSW to sign acts, but to check out "the milieu," to spot trends and to get a reading of the street pulse. You can look at this several ways: If you are part of a trend, your chances to get signed are greater. If you aren't part of a trend, you better go find a trend and latch onto it. But trends are already a commodified crystallization of popular culture, which is by nature hard to pin down. The A&R guys hit the streets like 18th century aristocrats going to the pastoral peasant villages searching for inspiration, vitality and buxom peasant lasses. And we SXSW participants try to give them what we think they want to hear, dancing our peasant jigs in a fitful effort to leap aboard the gravy train as it passes through our sleepy village.
Or, we can see our "milieu" as a source of strength, a bargaining tool in the musical class struggle. Rather than constrict our art by fitting into short-lived trends, we can use the visibility of our "milieu" as an opportunity to express things that trends only refract: subterranean themes like freedom, libido, community and truth. But we often forget our collective and enduring strength when we try, as individuals, to play the industry's game. The irony is that the industry itself is full of individuals seeking the very things that inspire us to create art, the things which they have distanced themselves from by accepting the corporate agenda. And so why wouldn't they want to seek out our "milieu" before it too becomes completely commodified and pinned to the wall like a trophy insect?
It is also worth mentioning that for four days, total strangers seeking to recognize and connect with someone would make eye contact with me wherever I went. Maybe they just wondered if I was Somebody, in which case their glances may have been just an extension of the overall schmooze-a-thon atmosphere of the week, as everyone looks to network. Yet, I think it's also part of a larger feeling of an extended community. Most artistic and occupational efforts are validated by an association with others in similar pursuits. We may have different individual agendas, but we're all in this together.
One other development struck me. Each year there are more and more venues and events that are not part of the official SXSW structure: more free concerts, in-stores, parties and such. They spring up not in opposition to SXSW but as an extension of it, helping to remind Austin and its music-minded visitors that we are here to celebrate the arts and our artist community, not to just make a buck off of them. Now that's some good "milieu."
Last year, while I was finishing up my senior year at NYU, my English major boyfriend, Geoff Klock, deferred his acceptance to the Ph.D. program at UT to wait for me. During this waiting period, he decided to go ahead and write his doctoral dissertation on superhero comics in order to save us time and money. By February, he had a working draft that was complete enough to for him to read it at a conference in March. It was upon his return from this conference that he announced his decision to publish the dissertation as a book. Now, I have come from the school of thought that publishing a book is not an easy task. It's not something that you just announce that you are going to do; but that's Geoff. So I smiled and decided to support him in his decision.
The very next day he went out to Barnes and Noble to look for books on how to publish and returned with only one guide: Getting Your Book Published for Dummies. One guide? And of all of the guides out there, this one? Surely he couldn't believe that it was going to be this simple.
But over the next few weeks, he (and I) read through the first chapters of the Dummies book, which advised us to compile a list of possible publishers and editors in order to write letters of query (see chapter 7 of the Dummies book). Of course, Geoff chose the easiest way possible to accomplish these tasks. First, he searched his bookshelf for books similar to the one that he was proposing and came up with a list of possible publishers. Then he went online, looked up names of specific editors from each publisher's home page and began writing his letters. By the end of that week, they were sent. I thought this was ridiculous. Shouldn't he go out and pound the pavement or at the very least, stop by the library and do a little more homework?
Expecting a long wait for responses, I prepared to console and encourage. But within two weeks after his mass mailing, he received a positive response from a reputable publisher in New York. No, it wasn't Penguin; but it wasn't Joe's Publishing Shack either. Geoff sent them his book proposal (See chapter 8 of the Dummies book: "Preparing Submission Materials That Sell"), and by May, he was sitting in the editor's office. A very pleasant, slightly crazed and terribly enthusiastic transplant from England, the editor explained that they had just published a similar book on superheros that had been fairly well received; therefore, he was positive it would be publishable if Geoff made some necessary edits.
By then, Geoff had almost forgotten about the Dummies book and skipped right over chapters 10-13: "Choosing a Publisher," "Choosing an Agent" and "Self-Publishing," to the middle of chapter 14: "Negotiation." And it wasn't even June! Were things ever going to get tough?
In late June, he got the email. It simply stated that THE BOOK was going to be published and to expect a contract in the mail. Geoff had done it! And all he had needed was a little help from a book for Dummies.
And now the confession: I have since discovered that Geoff's meteoric rise to publishing was a fortunate coincidence. He owes a lot to luck. As it turns out, his editor was in a honeymoon period with the publishing company, having just transferred to the New York office from London. He was granted a certain amount of newcomer's creative license, and Geoff, the Dummie turned Super Biblio-Hero, was granted his first book.
[A painter and graphic designer, Sara Reiss is a recent transplant from New York who paints sets for the Zachary Scott Theatre when she's not playing video games with Geoff.]
Section Eight by Daniel Davis Clayton
The story began like most end...in bitter conflict. Contradicting the ways blues and grays did non-conversational engagement, I crafted arrangements of chemical agents to be utilized on a pheromonial basis. I was a master of my own sword. Cutting down obtrusive foliage obstacles in abusive mortgaged opticals I sought to clear a path toward any ole direction. The infection of injected biological manifestations gave our experimental host the most disturbing side effects. Nasal coagulated plasma congestions and the coughing up of pinkish phlegm stemmed research we hadn't conceived possible. Upon a whim, I petri-dished twenty-five samples in ample enough time to hold true to the placebo. Deemed scientific heroes, we dreamed of Nobel pieces and daily press releases on the recesses of our daily-annotated decision-making progress.
I remember back reading Ray Bradbury superstitions on Mars expeditions and the failure of such antagonistic endeavors when I was young. We would pave the way, whether history delved us kind measures for our would-be-gift to society or not. The work continued to go well. A venue of unwise circumstance had anyone cared to contemplate the notion. The lack of rhyme signified our disharmonious actions with nature. My lack of rhyme signified my disharmonious actions against natural Darwinism. I sought to change the face of the earth. I was not the only who grieved, displeased with my potential crimes against humanity; yet we could not leave but only fall to knees and bequeath a bit of our saviors' dew.
Tears smeared and oblique outcries released little social pleasure; therefore, my vocal measures were scaled against my petri treasures, which were cultivi (which is the true plural of cultivation) in duplicational multiplying mosh pits of bacterial materials in gestation. Regrets meant nothing. Daddy always said good intentions meant little without just actions; so my inventions bent, crushing throughout thrust fractions. Each flail of my arms sent shards of shattered glasses and myriads of airborne viri into the enclosed breathing chambers. My children birthed far prematurely; they scattered into the winds of the four directions. Correction (more perplexion) when the door cringe buckled from battered demon furry cursed building flies. Had I batted mine eyes, I would have missed their amassment, sweltering like Beelzebub congealing into an instant humanoid being. What I was seeing was my life's work indeed. The seed of my hatred creeds led sorrow pleads from genetically pinpointed races. Melted swirl faces bled from bright blinding confining joust to blacking out.
God damned me in more ways than I had ever verbalized such a phrase. I suppose that was poetic justice engaged in jest. But within my situation, there was little to be mocked. I awoke from the incessant sound of the counting clock which began to resin my cerebellum like Chinese torture (if there were ever such a thing). No water needed, just the slow trickle of blood becoming a gelatin river carving deep canyons into my cranium. Such certainty loomed from contrite head wounds which can be maddening indeed.
My counterpart chose to clear a different path. He began to calculate counterstrike C-cells and viral incubation times, genetic soup concoctions and archival witchdoctor cocktail suppositories. His face began to grow long of no sleep and showed stress marks like the marks left on women's bellies after childbirth. A haggard description. Hair white and abandoning his body in tufts upon his pillow, at least it would rest fully. His attempts did not go unnoticed however; those big brother bugs and microphone sewn lab jackets exposed his endeavors in compound. Of course they simply allowed for him to continue. As his body and mind grew weaker, those eager for him to complete his missions allowed for conditions which encouraged his disobeyment. Oh how he feigned himself clever indeed when he crafted his own private laboratory from an abandoned storage room in section eight of the building.
He expired 27 months before his work was complete, meeting a defiant defeat upon his makeshift workstation's ungrievous floor.
I escaped the compound wailing, bearing gifts of otherworldly parasitical phalanges into water sources. Locals made erroneous citations of the presence of a strange beast when, in actuality, those beasts lie in each of their beds. I would deliver them into sanctuary, surely purging our earth of the scourged presence of man. The pharmaceutical plan was to create the antidote early and charge golden change. Surely the poor would be purged which pleased the manufacturers. Of course I would usurp their intentions.
While the South Asian American academic community enjoys a variety of professional publications, a journal addressing complex social and political issues for a more general audience does not exist. Many of the journals that feature topics about South Asia focus directly on the subcontinent and are generally targeted to academic experts. And while there are a host of other publications that serve the South Asian American community, most of them provide news or information without analysis.
The Subcontinental: A Journal of South Asian American Political Identity, a new journal that will publish its first issue this fall, will provide a unique forum for the South Asian American community to express the many facets of its political identity. The Subcontinental Institute, a new Austin-based non-profit housing the journal, is committed to engaging a broad base of public support for both the journal and its cumulative benefits. Such benefits will be reaped not only by the South Asian American community in general but also by the Austin community in particular.
Political Identity for South Asian Americans
South Asian Americans have an acute need for a forum in which to discuss their political identity. South Asians have had an impact upon American life since their arrival in New England in the early 1800s. In the late 1800s, a group of South Asians, predominately Sikh, immigrated to northern California and formed the Ghadar political party. Notably, the first and only South Asian American Congressperson, Dalit Singh Saund, was an active member.
Additionally, as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement, the United States immigration policy allowed a selective increase in South Asian immigration in the sixties. In dire need of skilled professionals, the U.S. allowed the best and brightest to enter, which enabled many South Asians to achieve economic success in America.
According to the latest U.S. Census, approximately 2.1 million South Asian Americans live in this country. While they have the highest income per capita of any minority group in the United States, they also experience higher rates of poverty than does the white population. And, although the U.S. generally perceives this group positively, South Asian Americans lack a representative body of voices in both the public and private sector, having little cumulative impact on the American political landscape. This prevents them from playing an active role in policymaking and participating in national issue debates.
Yet, South Asian Americans are developing a multi-faceted political identity that is young, but maturing. In creating this identity, South Asian Americans will continue to debate important issues that affect them, such as civil rights abuses and hate crimes, American investment in the Subcontinent and economic and technology issues. U.S.-Subcontinental foreign relations will figure prominently into this discussion as will political activism, South Asian American culture, public health and aging issues, immigration policy, and media representation, to name a few. Therefore, it is imperative that this growing population has organizations and publications that address such issues.
Published every three months, The Subcontinental will showcase research-based, feature-length articles and interviews by experts in and of this community. The journal is designed to be read by an educated general audience, and the first few issues will feature articles by such noted South Asian American experts as Vijay Prashad, author of The Karma of Brown Folk. The journal also will feature Ramesh Rao, Associate Professor of Language and Literature at Truman State University, who was recently quoted in The New Republic, as well as interviews with individuals such as Lata Krishnan, Director of the American India Foundation.
Both the institute and the journal plan to establish a presence in Texas and across the nation. As the journal gains readership, the institute will host meetings and lectures in Austin and other major metropolitan areas. Interaction among individuals, on both the local and national levels, is a critical part of encouraging discourse and building community identity. The Subcontinental Institute is committed to encouraging this discourse within the South Asian American community and sharing the results with all who are interested.
Austin as a Home for The Subcontinental
All organizations are concerned with positioning themselves in strategic conceptual and physical landscapes. And as with many academic disciplines, geography plays an important factor in defining the personality of the organization. The Subcontinental Institute has positioned itself both conceptually and physically in the central portion of the United States. This provides a space for expression outside the intellectual circles of the West Coast and the Northeast. Texas also enjoys an active South Asian American population and is home to one of the top universities in South Asian scholarship.
So why a journal in print? For the most part, web related media does not afford the time for reflection needed when absorbing complex issues and internalizing their importance. The Internet and other forms of media communication often provide information as bits of data or in easily digested chunks. Printed journals, on the other hand, represent not only the ideas they contain but also a commitment to the slower, thoughtful pace necessary to ponder important issues that make the intellectual life a rewarding one.
South Asian Americans continue to make enormous contributions to American life. It is vital that these contributions be chronicled, as they are opportunities to engage the national debate on a variety of issues. A cohesive political identity will allow South Asian Americans to increase their presence in American policymaking and enhance their role in the larger American society. The Subcontinental intends to become a key resource for those developing this presence.
For more information on The Subcontinental, contact Nirav Desai, Editor-in-Chief.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
So, there is this public body appointed to commission some permanent artwork for the new Latino cultural history museum. The panel has a mandate to pick art and artist that represent the culture and history of Latin America. The scale is large, the money is relatively small, but the prestige is huge. The artists who ultimately receive the commission get to have their work live in this public edifice forever. Their legacy-making, most permanent work will be a part of this homage to the people, culture, and history of this community for future generations. It seems to make sense that the artists chosen for such a prestigious commission should reflect, as closely as possible, the essence -- the cultural bloodline -- of Latin America. Right? After all, whether implicit or implied, that is also the essence of the mandate to the selection panel: Come back with art and artists that have an integral connection to the history and culture of the Latino Community of Austin.
The panel puts out a call for submissions, collects the materials, judges the entries and selects three artists for the project. All hell breaks loose.
Of the chosen artists, one is a young African American painter who studied the Mexican art tradition in college. He is from Oklahoma. The other two artist are Anglos who "have always been interested in the work of Armado Pena and Frida Kahlo," respectively. Both are from Austin; one, Tarrytown, the other, Travis Heights. Although the majority of submissions were from non-Latino artists, there were many Latinos who put together strong proposals for the project. The selection panel was composed almost entirely of Latin American arts professionals.
The selections and the process outrage the "community." Their position is pretty clear. Their sentiment is that the art and artists selected for the new museum should have a connection to the culture that is direct, an actual bloodline connection. There seems to be little concern for disingenuous PC legal phrasing. The "community" -- un-ashamed, un-apologetic -- very clearly wants a Latin American artist to get the commission. They wonder why that is so hard for the panel to get: "We want a Latin artist to do the work, not an artist "who has only studied Latin American Art."
Okay. The previous paragraphs detail a fictional situation. As far as I know, there is no new Latino Cultural History Museum on the book for Austin anything soon. But if there were to be one in the planning stages right now, you can bet that it would need support of governments funding sources. And, government funding means this kind of process. Government money, sometimes, also means you can't just come out and say what you want. The new republicanism and it's particular kind of post-affirmative action PC-ness dictates that you can't just come out and say, for instance, that the community really wants to find an African American artist to do permanent work for a new African American community-based cultural arts institution. That would not be PC.
But when you use the formula (the "process") that comes along with the government money for such projects, and you end up commissioning artists who don't share a bloodline with the cultural group in question, the shit hits the fan. And we have yet another opportunity to ask ourselves if race and culture are the same concepts. Is this a good time to play the race card? Is affirmative action such a bad thing?
I still don't have the inside scoop on any of that. I got some ideas, but who doesn't? But I am bothered that there are some folks out there who just continue to bury their heads in the sand and assert that there is no problem with such situations. For them it's just fine for a black kid from Oklahoma, who studied some Mexican art and read some books, to get a commission to do the permanent art work for a city-supported Latin culture center.
Maybe they are right. What do you think?
Like a Vegetable: The Growth of a Poet by Scott Wiggerman
Before I was a poet, I was a gardener. Each spring, summer and fall, I planted, nurtured and harvested a wide assortment of vegetables. Most seasons, I ended up with more tomatoes, peppers, onions and, of course, zucchini than I knew what to do with. Luckily, I was also a cook who relished homemade sauces.
But the vegetables proved to be just part of the joy of gardening. Little did I realize how much creativity they would inspire. While I had dabbled with poetry on and off since high school, I certainly didn't think of myself as a poet. But about eight years ago, in my late thirties, amidst the asparagus and beets, green beans and peas, I unexpectedly found not only an inspired subject but also a voice.
Who knows what finally catapults mere contemplation into an act of creativity? After a bout of weeding or watering, I suddenly found myself with a pen in hand, thinking about the garden in an imaginative manner. Asparagus became "a sea of charmed snakes"; zucchini were "adolescents out of control"; tomatoes were "juicy trollops." It seemed that once I got going, the ideas kept coming. The care of the garden stimulated and spawned ideas through a creative cross-pollination daily.
When I had a couple dozen vegetable poems, I realized that I was no longer writing just for myself. I'd reached the scariest point of the whole creative process: deciding that my writing needed to come out of the closet. That summer, I joined a poetry critique group, sent out a handful of poems to journals and read my poems in public for the first time. These were enormous steps for me to take but necessary to my newfound avocation.
To varying degrees, all three steps validated what I was doing with my poetry. The critique group has probably been the most helpful; in fact, I'd go so far as to say it's been indispensable to my growth as a poet. As someone who only had shared his poems with a handful of close friends, it was daunting to attend a group of complete strangers whose main purpose was to criticize! Yet I grew comfortable with the group (many of whom have become good friends), and I learned much about editing, revision and craft from these poets. And I still do, rarely missing one of the biweekly sessions of the Poetry Critique Group of the Writers' League of Texas.
Based largely on the encouragement I received from the group, I started to submit my poems for publication, another huge step in my progression as a writer. I began by submitting to local journals, and even after all these years, I shy away from the behemoths (New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc.). Much to my surprise and delight, several of my vegetable poems were accepted for the beautiful, but now-defunct journal, Ma-ana. This initial success prompted me to send poems to larger and more distant publications, and despite a great number of rejections, which I accept as part of the territory, I can say that now I'm happily published in dozens of journals as well as several poetry anthologies.
By far, the hardest step was making myself read in public. I began by venturing out to poetry readings as a listener. Even the anticipation of reading made me nervous. Finally, one evening, I decided to take the plunge. I took the stage at an open mike in front of a swarm of mostly younger strangers at a long-gone coffeehouse on Congress. Literally shaking, I read three poems, in retrospect, probably rather poorly. Yet the applause was polite, and several people came up to me afterwards, encouraging me to return. I did, and each time I did, reading became easier and more natural.
Success as a poet was not easy, but like gardening, poetry developed into more than a hobby. When I think about it, gardening and writing poetry are actually quite a bit alike. Both are introspective activities, requiring hours of observation and discipline. Both require diligence and patience, vision and effort. Both quietly bring forth fruit from the smallest germ, producing sustenance, if not for the body, then for the soul. I am proud to say that I unabashedly identify myself not as a gardener who writes poetry but as a poet who gardens. With both, as I proclaim in the first poem of my book, Vegetables and Other Relationships, "I beam like I've delivered a world."
[Vegetables and Other Relationships is available in local bookstores and online at Scott Wiggerman's website, http://swig.tripod.com.]
The Writers' League of Texas (WLT) has a lot of ground to cover all of a sudden. Formerly the Austin Writers' League, the organization is now trying to reach an entire state of aspiring writers with its programs and vision. It has a new director. It has a new name. It has a much larger contingency to canvass, as well as a growing local membership to satisfy. It is a huge transition for any nonprofit to make, one that requires money, members, marketing, volunteers and visibility.
But before we get into that, maybe we should look at what this group really does. Why does Texas need a writers' league? You hear about groups and their apparent causes all the time. You get that little card in the mail sometimes asking you to join or contribute. But why a writers' league? Do isolated, underpaid writer-types really need a statewide support group? Can such a group really help you finish that dusty old masterpiece sitting in the corner or under the desk?
The WLT has 1600 members paying $50 a piece in dues each year. It has a $400,000 operating budget. It has meetings every third Thursday of the month at the Unitarian Church on 49th and Grover. It has a board of directors. It has a staff, albeit a small one, and a headquarters down on West Fifth. It has a mission statement. It has a website. It has a newsletter for members. It has an electronic newsletter called Footnotes for everyone else. It has a resource library. And now it has a new executive director, and according to her, the Writers' League of Texas is one of the largest regional writers' support groups in the country (she estimates it as the second largest right now next to the Washington Independent Writers Organization). It is a real group with real budgets doing real things. But what is it doing for writers in Austin? And even more importantly, what can it do for me? I mean, I'm an isolated, underpaid writer-type. Why should I give up my hard earned $50?
"Mostly it's about putting people in touch with those who have more experience," Stephanie Sheppard, the new executive director, explains. "Pretty much anyone writing is looking to get published, and we have a nucleus where a lot of things are happening that can be helpful to those people. My experience with people in the creative process is they don't have the same sorts of strengths alone as they would with a larger group."
So, strength in numbers. That means the WLT can offer relatively cheap (cheaper) classes for beginning or experienced writers. It can offer workshops with professional writers. And you can get discounts on these if you pay dues. There is also the resource library, a collection of 1500 or so books about writing and publishing, including how-to books as well as directories and listings. The WLT website says, "Why purchase a book when as a member you are welcome to read all of the books in our library? Imagine how much money you could save each year. Easily enough to pay for your membership." That would seem to make sense, unless of course you don't live in Austin. But we are talking about benefits to Austin writers. And if you wanted to see what other Texas writers have been writing about, the WLT keeps copies of every book written by its members, comprising "the most extensive collections of Texas written literature in existence," and all you would have to do is drive down there and take a look.
But what can the WLT do for someone like me who does not like to join organizations or go to meetings or make financial contributions? For starters, the WLT has a website featuring free articles on publishing, research, unleashing inner feelings, etc. It also gives out literary grants and scholarships (as high as $4,000) in poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction to any qualifying applicant, regardless of your membership status. Furthermore, the group hosts a radio program that showcases local and statewide writers on KOOP 91.7 every Saturday at 4pm that anyone can tune into.
And for those of you who find that even these outlets are a bit too communal, for those of you who still prefer to write in complete isolation away from society -- working over your craft, drinking coffee at night, ignoring friends, support, memberships, conferences, classes and workshops -- well, we all have different ways of accomplishing our work. But when it comes to publishing, especially getting that first or second book out there, sometimes people do need a hand. And again, sometimes they don't. So, maybe that is the beauty of having the state writers' league in Austin: you may never use it, but it is always there.
"If someone shows up at our door, whether they are a member or not, we're there to help," Sheppard says. "We try to connect them with agents and publishers. We try to promote them so they can get their own work out there and learn how to market it on their own."
One of the organization's more dynamic qualities is the exposure it affords its members. It has two conferences every year. The summer conference takes place in July. It is called the "Agents, Agents, Agents" conference and is touted on the group's website as "the only one of its kind." It brings in agents and editors and attempts to team its members with people who are actively looking for new talent. If that's the kind of thing you're looking for in a writers' league, contact with an agent or editor can be helpful towards publishing, especially if you do not already have such. There is also a manuscript contest that runs concurrently with the conference, and if you win that contest you get a couple of free critiques and a meeting with an appropriate agent or editor.
The winter conference, called "Why Fiction Matters," took place a few weeks ago in early March. It featured Ann Pratchett, Janice Wood Windle and Mark Dunn, as well as some other published writers. It focused more on the actual writing process: narrative technique, character development, mystery writing, turning your book into a film, that kind of thing. In all, over twenty writers came in and held workshops and discussion groups about these kinds of topics. That conference cost $200, unless you were a member, in which case it only cost $135. So, if you paid a $50 membership fee, you actually saved an additional $15 somewhere in between.
Yet Sheppard insists the group's mission transcends any individual's or member's concerns. Much of the group's efforts are expended upon literary initiatives in the community and school system.
"With literature and writing, you don't have to be (William) Faulkner for it to be a creative outlet for you. It is very important for people to know that and have that possibility. We want to be a presence in the community...to become more visible in different communities in Austin, as well as across the state."
One of the more interesting projects the league sponsors is Writers in Schools for Enrichment (WISE). In cooperation with the Austin Independent School District (AISD), the program sends volunteers, who are practicing publishing authors, out to the schools to visit with third to fifth graders and hold small writing workshops. According to Sheppard, the benefit of the program is two-fold.
"For one, the programs are in the schools so the students don't have to go somewhere else. It also employs writers to teach, which I think is important. I think the most valuable things you can do is to teach people to create their own artwork. The government sort of took arts out of the schools for a while, and now they want to put it back in. I think the arts program is probably one of the best things for young children. And it builds our audience, so it provides a great service for both of us.
"It's interesting because there are several published authors who love the program we do at the Austin Museum of Art. A lot of (them) might teach before they come, and they love to teach...and want to continue."
The WLT is currently doing projects in Sanchez Elementary and Johnston High School, but it provides services upon request for any teachers in the AISD school system.
So, if you were paying dues to the WLT, you would be supporting such programs without actually having to do anything yourself. You could feel good about that if you were not the kind of person who gets away from the computer long enough to exert any effort in the community. And if one of those programs does not strike you, there is also a summer camp writing program, a middle school workshop program and a Young Authors Day program. If you had the hankering to do so, you could even volunteer at one of these and be someone's role model for a day. That might feel good, for $50 a year.
"What we do best is provide services for lots of organizations," Sheppard says. "What makes us really unique though is we do the sub-grants for the state, and that's a big job. It provides some fairly nice fellowships and some decent sub-grants to lots of different groups."
The WLT receives a $100,000 Texas Literary Initiative grant from the state, which qualifies it every December to review proposals and administer the Texas Commission on the Arts' sub-grants to various smaller groups like the Austin Poets International, the Zachary Scott Theater Center or the Austin Poetry Slam. These grants range from a few hundred dollars up to $6000.
"I think it's really good to partner whenever possible," Sheppard says. "We also umbrella a lot of film organizations. For example, the Austin Film Society can only umbrella so many groups or people, so we have several filmmaking groups that we support as well."
All in all, the league serves as an umbrella organization for nine groups. It administers between 25 and 30 sub-grants from the state each year. It also has programs in ten libraries.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Sheppard says. "I think there's a bigger responsibility now to represent local writers and provide services and keep up our standards to our members.
"Locally, our desire would be to work with more underprivileged schools. We want to make sure our writers go to schools that have a need and don't already have that service, to see more collaborative efforts with the African American community and with the Hispanic community as well. But I think we are moving more towards stuff like that. Everything has to be supplemented by volunteers, and sometimes you can't do that unless people want to get involved. I think there has been less focus on that so far because of funding."
Yet despite funding concerns, Sheppard is optimistic about the future.
"I would like to see us have a signature event each year that is a lot of fun...where we can get the word out more: That we (will) have a permanent home sometime soon. That we (will) have a place with classroom space and a larger library and more support where people can come and hang out. To have some satellite programs in other communities but continue to partner with organizations in those communities to get things done. To offer larger and more prizes for writing. To continue to provide services and listen to what members say. I think we have lots of opportunities available on all levels of how to write. We're the best and the oldest, and we're available to anybody."
[Evan Johnson plays bass for the Kings of the Motel Six and writes short stories under a pen name. He receives his master's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in May. He enjoys hang-gliding and South Texas polkas.]