Archive for March 13, 2011

Tin House’s Class in America

“I don’t suppose anyone has ever offered an in-depth study of the literary form of literary ephemera, the author dust jacket biography.  But if they did, I’m sure they would notice a distinct sociological shift over the past decades.”  So begins author Gerald Howard in “Never Give an Inch” an article published in Tin House’s Class in America Issue.

I admit, dear readers, that when the call for submissions came out for Tin House’s issue dedicated to class issues, that I submitted three poems of working class/blue-collar nature.  I did not get accepted, but still eagerly awaited my copy of this particular issue.  At first, I was a bit disappointed when I opened the pages because I did not see work from some of my favorite poets of working class poetry including Jim Daniels and Jan Beatty.  But I quickly warmed up to the issue.

Tin House’s class in America offers a small, but wonderful selection of poetry including work from Major Jackson, Erika Meitner, and Charles Harper Webb.  The issue also has fiction and reviews, but I have to admit that my favorite piece was the essay by Gerald Howard.  Choosing to focus on authors’ individual biographies, Howard questions the role that working-class writers and their works will play in the literary future.  He explains, “Contemporary dust jacket biographies tend to document the author’s long march through the elite institutions, garnering undergraduate and postgraduate and MFA degrees, with various prizes and publications in prestigious literary magazines all dully noted.”   Besides noting the change in authors’ biographies, Howard also talks about those in history (and much of it recent history) who do write about the working-class world, discussing the influence of Bobbie Ann Mason, Dorothy Allison, and of course, Raymond Carver. 

I spent a great deal of time as an undergraduate studying the work of  these authors, so in many ways, this particular article was a happy trip down memory lane.  But Howard’s words also got me thinking about my own writing and my own biographies that I paste into my cover letters.  I admit, that if I sending my poems to a journal or magazine that focuses on blue-collar creative works, I do note in my bio that I spent time as a factory worker, a waitress, a reporter.  But now, I also have to admit that my bio is more the typical work that most people would read in any literary journal.  I have published this, I have published there, I teach there.  Stick in my award from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and there you have in:  Karen J. Weyant’s literary life in a nutshell.  Should I go back to my old bios?  Does it matter?  Or should my work really speak for itself?  It’s true that I have not held a working-class job in many years, and I see the world of working class through Anthony, through my family, and through my students.  So in many ways, their stories are the stories I twist and bend and mold into my poems.  Yet, it’s also true that I’m not a prestigious writer, nor do I teach at a prestigious school (community colleges are on the outskirts of the academic world, outskirts I love, but outskirts, nevertheless), so I can’t say that I am lost in what might be considered the “typical” writer’s world in today’s America, either.

Howard’s article didn’t offer any hard and fast answers about class issues in today’s writing.  Still, it was a piece that made me think about the blue-collar writer’s place in today’s world.  And because lately, I have been immersed in statistics and data and 200 page reports about education, I am glad that I had a chance to grapple with subjects — and people — that are real to me.