Literature Lives in Print

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on December 15, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.

As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.

When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.

When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.

Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.

As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.

And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.

The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.

Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.

In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.

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p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.

Hugh Welchman on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Hugh Welchman by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


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Biographical Information—Hugh Welchman

Loving Vincent is the world’s first fully oil painted feature film. Written & directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, produced by Poland’s BreakThru Films & UK’s Trademark Films. The film brings the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to life to tell his remarkable story. Every one of the 65,000 frames of the film is an oil-painting hand-painted by 125 professional oil-painters who traveled from all across the world to the Loving Vincent studios in Poland and Greece to be a part of the production. As remarkable as Vincent’s brilliant paintings, is his passionate and ill-fated life, and mysterious death. No other artist has attracted more legends than Vincent van Gogh. Variously labelled a martyr, a lustful satyr, a madman, a genius and a layabout, the real Vincent is at once revealed in his letters, and obscured by myth and time. Vincent himself said in his last letter: ‘We cannot speak other than by our paintings’. We take him at his word and let the paintings tell the real story of Vincent van Gogh.

Loving Vincent was first shot as a live action film with actors, and then hand-painted over frame-by-frame in oils. The final effect is an interaction of the performance of the actors playing Vincent’s famous portraits, and the performance of the painting animators, bringing these characters into the medium of paint. Loving Vincent stars famous faces to match the famous paintings they portray including Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, John Sessions, Aidan Turner and Helen McCrory,

“A one-of-a-kind work of art.”
—Variety

“Hypnotic and beguiling.”
—A.O. Scott, The New York Times

“Remarkable. You will marvel at the art in this labor-intensive labor-of-love.”
—Bob Mondello, NPR All Things Considered

“A new film that tears up the rule book of animation…I’ve not experienced anything like it before.”
—Florence Waters, The Telegraph

“A jaw-droppingly beautiful film.”
—Tomris Laffly, Film Journal International

“Never has there been a film that spoke to the heart of an artist like “Loving Vincent”. Animation and fine art painting come together in this loving tribute to the work and life of a master artist.”
—Tony Bancroft, SIFF Animation Jury

Boris Dralyuk on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Boris Dralyuk by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


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Biographical Information—Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA. His work has appeared in the Times Literary SupplementThe New YorkerLondon Review of BooksThe Guardian, and other publications. His translations from Russian include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), and co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). His website is bdralyuk.wordpress.com

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Night.—Northeaster
by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.

Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.

Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.

The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.

Feodosia, the last days of October 1917

Translated by Boris Dralyuk. From 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press, 2016).

Pam Uschuk on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Pam Uschuk by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


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Biographical Information—Pam Uschuk

Political activist and wilderness advocate, Pam Uschuk has howled out six books of poems, including Crazy Love, winner of a 2010 American Book Award, Finding Peaches in the Desert (Tucson/Pima Literaature Award), One-Legged Dancer, Scattered Risks, and Wild in the Plaza of Memory (2012). Her Without the Comfort of Stars, was published by Sampark Press in New Delhi. A new collection of poems, Blood Flower, appeared in 2015 and was a notable book on Book List.

Translated into more than a dozen languages, her work appears in over three hundred journals and anthologies worldwide, including Poetry, Ploughshares, Agni Review, Parnassus Review, etc.

Uschuk has been awarded the 2011 War Poetry Prize from Winning Writers, 2010 New Millenium Poetry Prize, 2010 Best of the Web, the Struga International Poetry Prize (for a theme poem), the Dorothy Daniels Writing Award from the National League of American PEN Women, the King’s English Poetry Prize and prizes from Ascent, Iris, and Amnesty International.

Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Editor-In-Chief of Cutthroat, Uschuk lives in Tucson, Arizona and Bayfield, Colorado. Before becoming a professor, Uschuk taught poetry to indigenous students throughout Montana and for years in Southwest Arizona through ArtsReach. She has taught at Pacific Lutheran University, Marist College, Salem College (where she was the Director of the Center for Women Writers, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Fort Lewis College, Universty of Arizona Writing Works, and given many workshops at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Often a featured writer at the Prague Summer Programs. In 2011, Uschuk was the John C. Hodges Visiting Writer at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. During January of 2017, she was a featured writer on faculty at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. With her staff, Uschuk edited the anthology, Truth to Power: Writers Respond to the Rhetoric of Hate and Fear, and she’s finishing on a multi-genre book called The Book of Healers Healing: An Odyssey Through Ovarian Cancer.

__________

After the Election We Watch the Super Moon Rise over the Rincon Mountains

The mountains are burning and we cannot sleep.

We light candles at the Grotto where daughters toss the dark braids of sick mothers at
Guadelupe’s feet, where fathers pin photos of the stricken for slivers of miracle, uphill from the
Mission’s dome, White Dove catching sunset’s irridescent wishes in sky biolumenescent as plankton in the Sea of Cortez.

We breathe the dust of conquistadors who must applaud these election results caught
in the tyrant’s clenched teeth calling hate from under the cracked sidewalks of the despised
poor who believe in promises thin as light disappearing at our feet.

The mountains are burning out of control, flames higher than our dreams of peace, eating pine
trees, the hearts of deer, flames higher than the orange-faced despot’s fiery rhetoric of fear.

At hill crest, we sit on concrete losing heat to stark dark taking desert in its irrevocable mouth, sit
stunned despite the stinging bites of the fire ant colony skittering up our invading calves.

Unsheltered, we cannot sleep, see the huge yellow corona crowning, the birth of our moon
closer to earth than its been since our own births more than half a century past.

We wait, women holding tight our arms against news that darkens daily, against the crisp flap
of white sheets, the sneering narcissist chorus recounting rapes on TV. There is nothing else
to do but lean against one another’s sorrow, our disbelief.

We’ve left our candles of hope burning in the maw of the Grotto below to witness
the balm of moon rise while mountain slopes turn inferno sending contrails of smoke
to choke twilight’s last blue song.

Oh, Moon, you are so late, grinding up slow behind jagged Rincon peaks, backlit
with enough gleaming milk to feed thousands of refugee children hunted like rabbits
by our border guards. Have you heard their small bones cry sleepless in detention cells?

We watch wildfires more immense than our nightmares consume miles of ridges, burning past
our history as the super hunter’s moon blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven.

Closer we lean into our shivering until a blizzard of crushed diamond light breaks
screaming white, striking us blind, cauterizing our battered hearts, rejecting the nuclear
wasps of power and revenge hissing from the tyrant’s tongue.

The moon’s perfect snow glows sharp as an arctic blade slicing open our hopeless arms, baptizing
our faces with reflected light, and we know no tyranny can long last under such scrutiny.

Even in darkness, doves breathe, nestled in sparse mesquite leaves. We recall the canyon wren
displaced roosting in the mission’s adobe eaves with angels that have flown for centuries,
moon-dazzled, drizzled by light bouncing from solar storms translated in their genes.

Moon’s ice white chin lifts for Venus. Mica glitters each of our steps over volcanic rock past
the Grotto’s knotted prayers for compassion, past our long burning candles, navigating treacherous
gravel the color of winter fields, taking us home, beyond any terror or grief.

Luis J. Rodríguez on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Luis J. Rodríguez by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—Luis J. Rodríguez

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti chose Luis J. Rodríguez as Poet Laureate of the city in 2014. Rodríguez is Scholar-in- Residence at California State University, Northridge, and the author of fifteen books of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction. For more than thirty-five years, he has been speaking and reading at schools, libraries, conferences, prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, and Native American reservations in the United States, as well as at festivals, book fairs, colleges, and universities throughout North, Central, and South America; the Caribbean; Europe; and Japan.

Rodríguez won a 2015 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achieve­ment for Poems across the Pavement: 25th Anniversary Edition. His awards also include a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, a Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and fellowships from the Sundance Institute, the Lannan Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, the City of Chicago, the California Arts Council, and the Illinois Arts Council.

The 1993 memoir Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., with close to half a million copies sold, became one of L.A.’s most checked out in libraries—and one of the most stolen. His memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

In Chicago, where he lived from 1985 to 2000, Rodríguez was active in the poetry slam movement born there. He was cofounder of the Guild Complex Literary Center, an organizer for the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, and a writer for the city’s poetry magazine Letter eX. In 1993, Rodríguez took part in the first Slam Poetry tour of Europe. He also founded the crosscultural small press, Tía Chucha, now publishing for more than twenty-five years.

After moving back to Los Angeles, Rodríguez, his wife Trini, and other family and community members created Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, offering workshops in the arts, writ­ing, dance, theater, photography, indigenous cosmology and language, and encompassing arts and literacy festivals, an art gallery, weekly open mics, performance space, and a bookstore.

__________

Love Poem to Los Angeles
(with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman)

1

To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
valleys, ravines.
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

2

Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.

Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all—
more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past hundred years
than any other city.

3

To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
askew perhaps,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown art deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
all disarming,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
graveyard shifts,
poetry readings,
murals,
lowriding culture,
skateboarding,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican, as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.

You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, N.W.A., or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

4

I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
Zootsuit “riots,”
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
water thievery,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,
resilient.