Tag Archives: Willows Wept Review

A Penny for your Thoughts? –Pt. One

30 Oct

When individuals use money, they know very well that there is nothing magical about it–that money, in its materiality, is simply an expression of social relations. . . . The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, they are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth as such.
     –Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

One of the things I enjoy about running is the time spent outdoors, away from websites and televisions and cell phones and nearly every distraction, save the occasional armadillo or coyote or neighborhood dog. It affords time for reflection and, when I’m not running alone and when we’re not running especially hard, for conversation.

A few days ago, I was out for an easy run with the cross country team that I coach, and one of my runners asked me about my writing. “Why do you do it?” Scott wanted to know. “Is there any money in it?”

Of course, if you’re reading this on Vouched, then you probably have good answers to both of these questions already. But it did provoke a long conversation about the ways in which writing can become a commodity.

At the beginning, I told him, I wrote a lot of things that weren’t very good. Some of these, I sent to editors who sent back pre-made postcards in the mail or who stuffed photocopied rejection slips into my self-addressed, stamped envelopes. But eventually, I wrote things that were, I hope, better, and a few editors said yes. And then a few more. And then an especially kind editor offered to publish a chapbook.

And then, I told Scott, if you do this long enough and diligently enough, maybe one day you start to get the occasional editor who seeks you out, who asks you to send your work to her journal.

“What about then?” he wanted to know. “Then, do you get paid?”

Not hardly.

But then I told him how enough of these sorts of publications could lead to a book deal, which probably wouldn’t amount to much money, either. But that a book deal (or two, or three) could help a writer secure a teaching or editing position that was paid–so that, if you were lucky, eventually, you’d have a job that paid you to do something else but that supported your writing.

Which brought me back to the question: Why do writers write? I know Stephen King’s answer, of course, but in the world of small presses and independent journals, is it ever about the money?

And of course, my answer is no. The writing is not about the money. And, for that matter, I told him, neither is the running. Now, I’ve met a few elite runners who have sponsorship deals, who are paid to run, but for most people, running isn’t about the money any more than writing is–running a great time in your local 5k race isn’t about the money any more than having a poem published by PANK.

A couple of months ago, Jeff Edmonds–a philosopher and a much better runner than I am–had this to say:

I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: one of the best reasons to run is its utter uselessness as an activity. . . . The fact that a run has no exchange value on the open market is a mark that it, as an experience, cannot be exchanged. Its value, like that of life itself, is inherent and singular.
     –Jeff Edmonds, The Logic of Long Distance

Like a good run, a good poem really has no exchange value on the market. Now, we might pay for it–we might pay the runner who wins a race, or we might pay the poet who excels at the craft–but even in the act of paying, we disassociate the payment from the act. It is not payment for the act, as it might be when we take a car in for repair. When I ordered Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, for instance, or Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart, I didn’t really consider–in a monetary sense–the value of the book, or of the time, or of Matt’s or Molly’s craft; but when I had a new battery installed in my truck last weekend, I certainly considered the value of the battery, of the time, and–to some degree, at least–of the mechanic’s craft.

I know for a fact that I have never written a poem and then said, “This poem is worth ten dollars.” Or a hundred. Or a thousand. Or one.

So why do we buy and sell these things? Why do we, here, right here on this website, ask you to buy books? How do I tell you that a particular book is “worth it”?

When I (finally) made the decision a few months ago to offer a print edition of Willows Wept Review, I agonized. How could I ask people to pay for something to which I could not assign a value?

If Žižek is right in his reading of Marx, if money “is simply an expression of social relations,” then we might begin by asking what the social relations are in independent literature, by asking not only what values we assign those relations but also how we assign them.

What are, we might ask, the economics of expression?

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Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s “Dendrochronology”

5 Nov

In putting together the latest issue of Willows Wept Review, I got the chance to read a lot of great work. And much of the time, I’m able to articulate what I love about a piece pretty easily.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s poem “Dendrochronology,” however, was an exception.

When I read it, I knew immediately that I wanted to publish it, but I wasn’t quite sure why. There was something about the poem that haunted me, and I found for days that it had stuck in my memory, that I was turning it over in my head while I was driving or running or cooking dinner. I knew it was great, knew there was something true in the comparison the poem makes, but I finally realized that I wasn’t sure what it meant to compare love to poplar.

The issue released last Friday, and it wasn’t until Tammy wrote about the poem on the Cha blog that I started to understand the poem in a rational way.

Lately, I’ve been teaching Jonathan Edwards’s “A Divine and Supernatural Light” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in my American literature classes, and Tammy’s poem has made me more aware of the distinction that both of these writers make between sensory knowledge and rational knowledge–I recognized this poem’s greatness when I first read it, had a sense of its truth, but it wasn’t until much later, until after reading her own thoughts about the poem, that I came to a logical understanding of it.

I’ll invite you to read the poem over at Willows Wept Review, to see if it has the same effect on you that it has had on me. And then, when you’re ready, to read Tammy’s comments about it.