The Personal / Universal Paradox in Art

The other day, one of my low-res MFA students, Dani Putney, and I were conferencing a poem and we got into a side discussion of the personal and the universal. His stance, which I agree with, is that the Universal doesn’t exist. (I’ll use a capital letter here, though he didn’t since we were talking by video, not writing out our thoughts. The capital is to indicate Universal in the broadest terms.)

The idea of the Universal is often used in the sense that an artist should make their work accessible to a Universal audience, but Dani’s point was that this often means to make it palatable for an older, white, male audience. This is not new ground, of course, but it was a good discussion to have and to keep having. Universality in this sense is a myth. What gets defined as Universal is far from universal, and what gets defined as too personal or too limited in scope is often just as relevant, but to different, less powerful communities.

Isn’t that hegemony, after all? Those with cultural power define what is good or beautiful or universal and then assume, because they can, that everything else is lesser-than if it is other or different. I get it, and I fully agree that this definition of Universal is wrong. But the question remains, where does that leave the artist—in our cases, where does it leave the poet? Is it, therefore, simply all right to write about your own personal concerns and not pay any concern to universality?

On the one hand, I would probably answer: sure, why not? After all, what feels important or beautiful or moving to you will likely find a group of people who share that feeling. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to a slight reservation: couldn’t this lead to endless navel-gazing?

The question I posed to Dani is: Do we, as artists, look out or look in? The answer may be that we should do both, simultaneously. In other words, to only concern myself with my own concerns and never consider how they might be relevant to others is probably a mistake for an artist. I say probably because there are exceptions to every rule.

When I’m drafting a poem, I am intially only concerned with myself, with what I think or feel or the words that come to me, and I try not to worry about any other audience. As I’m revising a poem and maybe even as I’m thinking about what poem I might write next, I do look outward. I want to know who gives a damn about what I’m writing, and I hope the answer might be ‘someone.’ This is where the universal without a capital letter comes in. Do I write only for my moment or do I write for a future reader? Do I write for myself or even my community, or do I hope to reach others who are vastly different from me?

Writing that is universal is relevant to many readers from many communitites and with many identities. That is its strength. Who those communities are may be up to the writer or may be impossible to predict. It comes from looking in and looking out and finding ways to connect with others. It does not fit any one definition of Universal, though.

The Universal comes from looking in and assuming everyone else should see what you see and value what you value, assuming that your experience is definitive and therefore is Universal by definition.

How personal and how universal to be is every artist’s choice. We know that sometimes the most intensely personal art (at its creation) can become the most universal (as others respond to its intensity). The more intricate and deeply felt a work of art is, the more relevant it can become; the more general and universal it tries to be, the more it loses its power to move us. We want to write about things other people will care about, yet often the things we care most about end up being what finds others who care.

Like a lot of things, there is no one right answer, and everyone must find their own balance. It is an issue we subconscioulsy weigh with every line, every image, every poem. And then we make our peace with it in a final draft (we hope) and send the poem off to make its way and find its readers. No one should tell us what we need to write to be Universal, though. No one can predict the journey a poem will take, who will read it, or how they will respond. To make assumptions about Univerality is to make assumptions about which readers matter, and to be truly universal is to remain open to all readers, regardless of their status, their community, their identity, etc.

I believe this comes first through embracing your own identity and your own community, however you define it, and then through striving to make your art relevant to anyone who cares to listen. True Universality may be a myth, and an oppressive one at that, but the goal of universality, though unattainable, may not be such a bad one if reaching it goes through the personal.

Quick Pickled Vegetables for Stir Fry

IMG_0368This summer, we happened upon a Vietnamese restaurant in Festus, Missouri, on our travels. The food was very good, but what really impressed me was the pickled vegetables in their spring rolls. This gave me the idea to try doing that at home. After looking up a few recipes for Vietnamese pickled vegetables, I realized how easy they are to make. The proportions vary quite a bit from recipe to recipe, so I felt fairly confident adjusting them to meet my needs. The recipe I started with called for:

  • 1.5 cups vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar, but any good vinegar would do)
  • 1/2 cup water (I may have used a little less)
  • 1/4 cup honey (sugar would work, too, but honey disolves more easily)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • vegetables

I started with the vinegar, water, honey, and salt, then thinly sliced carrots, cucumber, and onion until I had enough to fill the contain and be covered by the pickling liquid. I think I may have added a little vinegar to top it off the first time. Let this sit in the refridgerator in a covered container for at least an hour, and you have pickled veggies.

I added these to my stir-fry near the end, after frying tofu, mushrooms, and maybe a couple of other veggies in the wok. Using a fork, I was able to take some pickled veggies out of the brine and transfer to the wok to sauté just a little before adding cooked Asian noodle. It was delicious.

I used about half the veggies the first night, and the rest later in the week. But then I had a nice amount of brine left over, so I thinly sliced another batch of veggies and put them in the fridge. These, which had been in the brine longer, were even better, and now I’m on the third batch of veggies with the same brine. Eventually, I’ll need to discard the brine and start over, but it’s easy enough to make when I need to replenish it.

This time, the veggies I used were carrot, turnip, yellow squash, sweek potato, and green pepper. I also added a few cumin and coriander seeds for added flavor, so we’ll see how that works out. Given all of that, combined with the fact that the brine’s been around for a couple fo weeks already, this may be the last time I do it without making fresh brine.

 

More on Jim Brock

Richard Thompson of Bluegrass Today wrote a fitting tribute to Jim Brock this week. I was glad to contribute what I could, and glad to learn the parts of Mr. Brock’s story that others filled in.

In Memoriam: Jim Brock

DSCN6917A legendary fiddler passed away last week. Mr. Jim Brock of the small town of Aliceville, Alabama, was a much more influential figure than many who knew him casually probably realize. In recent years he had recorded a couple of CDs locally (Me and My Fiddle and The First 55 Years), but hadn’t been active on the music scene.

Starting in 1952, though, he played with Carl Sauceman and the Green Valley Boys who had syndicated shows on radio and television. He would go on to play with Jim and Jesse and the Virgina Boys and with Bill Monroe and others, as well as to have a regular stint at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

The way I met Mr. Brock, as we always called him, was when our son, Aidan, started taking fiddle lessons with him. This was one of the greatest opportunities we had through our local Arts Council. We saw in the paper that Mr. Brock would be giving lessons, and Aidan had been playing violin with the local Suzuki group for awhile. We’d heard Mr. Brock play with a young local fiddler named Ruby Jane Smith, who he’d also taught, so we knew it was an incredible opportunity.

When we first started lessons, it was quite an adjustment, though. Mr. Brock told us right away that he didn’t read music, so Aidan would be learning everything by ear. That took a little getting used to, but Mr. Brock suggested we bring a video recorder to tape the songs, so Aidan could use that to practice with. After about 8 years of lessons, we have many, many hours and about 250 songs on tape, some well known standards and some West Alabama tunes few others know. By that point, Aidan and Jim were stretching Mr. Brock’s repertoire and getting beyond the point where taping was even necessary. Mr. Brock had introduced us to other fiddler greats, and Aidan often picked tunes up from their CDs.

Along the way, we moved from taking lessons in town at the Arts Council to taking them from Mr. Brock at his house in Aliceville. We often made the drive on Sunday afternoons down Hwy 69 from Columbus, through Pickinsville, and on to Mr. Brock’s house. So the drive this past Sunday down to the funeral chapel for visitation was a sad but familiar one. It was good to see his son Jimmy, who played with his dad in The Echoes, and his daughter and son-in-law and to pay our respects.

Jim Brock was a very humble and giving man, for whom passing on this music was clearly the most important aspect of the lessons he gave to our son and several other students. During the lessons Mr. Brock would often tell stories of the fiddlers he’d played with over the years, the jokes they’d tell, the wild life some of them (but not Jim) got into on the road. I often wished I’d had that recorder going when he launched into a story.

In addition to the lessons, Mr. Brock aslo encouraged Aidan to perform, asking him to join in on a few tunes when he played a concert at the Arts Council and agreeing to play with Aidan for the Columbus Pilgrimage or other events. And he invited Aidan to come out and sit in with him and Gene Robertson’s band, The Echoes, at a local dance. It was there I finally learned the two-step (at least a little) and got to know a great group of locals who liked to come out to the senior center to dance and have a potluck twice a month. Eventually, Aidan would put on his own concerts and invite Jim Brock to join him on a few songs.

Jim Brock became more of a friend and mentor than a music teacher. The world has lost a great soul with his passing, and though we know he is better off, we still mourn his loss.  We are honored to have known and learned from this master fiddler and generous man.

 

Book Review: Gumbo Life by Ken Wells

Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux BayouGumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou by Ken Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I need to preface my review by saying that I’m a vegetarian. This book is more aimed at carnivores, and I’m sure Wells would find my vegetarian gumbo sacrilegious, though he proves to be an adventurous eater. And no, I wouldn’t put quinoa in soup and call it gumbo as Disney apparently did (though quinoa soup is delicious in its own right). So maybe Wells will forgive me.

Anyone who is a fan of Louisiana culture or of great food writing will find a lot to love in this book, whether or not you eat chicken, seafood, or sausage, however. It’s probably impossible to impart the secrets of a good roux if you’re not standing over the pot as Wells describes his mother teaching him (after a failed attempt at providing instructions over the phone). But Wells comes as close as anyone can in numerous descriptions of the gumbo cooking process, as his mother and others he knew growing up did it, as the chefs in a gumbo contest do it, as a number of restaurants do it, and even as a it is done in mammoth kettles for mass production. He even confronts the question of whether gumbo originally was made with a roux or whether that was a later addition, and whether its origins are primarily Cajun, Creole, African, or Native American.

Writing in a lively and entertaining style, Wells always blends the personal story with the history, the science, and the culture of gumbo. Wells chronicles his own fascination with this Cajun/Creole staple, and he documents its history and lore as he explores the culinary diaspora that has made it available around the world, showing his journalism credentials in the depth of research he has done and the number of chefs and others he has interviewed and the number and types of gumbo he has sampled. The recipes collected at the back do not only give a sense of the range of gumbo styles Wells has covered in the preceding pages, they also provide inspiration for continued experimentation with this quintessentially American dish.

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Book Review: When you Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

When You Learn the AlphabetWhen You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.

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Book Review: Biloxi by Mary Miller

BiloxiBiloxi by Mary Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Mary Miller is my colleague in The W’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m a big fan of her work.

Biloxi is a hilarious read, though it’s not laugh-out-lout funny, outlandish, or bawdy. Mary Miller’s humor, to my mind, consists more of taking wry, sardonic pot shots at contemporary culture in a loving, even complicit way. Her novel is not driven by plot; instead it presents a complex character study. Louis McDonald, Jr., her rather clueless yet lovable main character, navigates a personal crisis after his divorce, and the point is not how well he succeeds or even how he learns or grows (though arguably, he does). The point is that we understand him and explore his world, a world Miller knows intimately, from its burger joints to its sad strip malls, beaches, and casinos. Or maybe the true main character is Layla, the dog, and we are like her, lapping up every tasty morsel, every slice of bologna Mary Miller tosses on the kitchen floor for us, occasionally nipping at a brother-in-law or running off only to return to our new home after awhile to see what other leftovers may be lying around. This novel is introspective and insightful, though it doesn’t offer easy answers as much as it offers a mirror onto the 21st-century, mid-American consumer culture we all inhabit, like it or not.

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