Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Writer, the Politician, the Truth

Guest post by David Romtvedt

David Romtvedt and his father-in-law
at the family's ranch.
I’m a writer and have been for over forty years. My job is to explore the human condition—the self, the world we live in, our relationship to the beings with whom we share the world—the plants and animals, the air and water. I try to understand and illuminate with language the inner life—my own and that of other people. To do this I must enter into another person’s psyche. In poetry and fiction this person is an invented being derived from observation, experience, and imagination.

The furniture of writing is the furniture of the world. Or the clothing. As we dress the body so the body dresses the psyche. Am I my body? When my body dies, do I die with it? There’s a scene in the film Little Buddha in which a Tibetan monk tries to explain something of Buddhism to the middle class American father whose son may be a reincarnation of a Tibetan master. The monk fills a cup of tea but rather than offer it to the American or drink it himself, he smashes the cup against the side of a table. Holding the handle and looking around at the shards of clay, he asks the American if the tea is gone. Of course it’s not gone, it’s just not in the cup anymore. Am I like the tea? Is the tea aware of its own existence? Tea is liquid and will evaporate leaving almost nothing behind but a brown stain.

The world is breathtakingly beautiful—the dust in the wind, the smell of that dust when rain falls, the shape and motion of leaves on a tree, the tree, the body language of a person who is physically hurt or angry or bitter, the look in the eyes of one who is longing for something unattainable, water and those insects that can walk on water, snow. Perhaps there is a book waiting to be made of nothing but a list of such details. Notice, the book tells us, what is all around us, everywhere present yet secretive.

While I have worked as a journalist, I rarely set out in my poetry and fiction to comment on current events or to articulate my personal and political values. Of course those values lead me to think in certain ways and are present in what I write. My poems, driven by image and metaphor, often try to reveal what those in power would hide.

I was raised in a working class household. My father left school at grade six and worked his entire life as a laborer doing physically hard and often dangerous jobs. At one point, a semi tractor-trailer hitch broke and the trailer fell on him crushing both his arms. He thought literature that made no money was worthless, money being the measure of worth. He was ashamed of his lack of money, seeing it as evidence that he was dumb. “If you’re so smart,’ he asked me, “why aren’t you rich?”

My mother grew up one of nine children on a dairy farm but after serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II attended normal school and became a teacher working with children in grades one to three. She never wanted to be a schoolteacher but saw it as the best escape for a woman born in 1920 into a household with no money.

It’s for my mother and father that I write.

There is a fairy tale we tell ourselves in America—anyone can do or be anything. If we work hard we can attain our goals. If we don’t, we didn’t work hard enough or we lacked the capacity for the thing we wanted to do and be. If these things are true, then the reason the US has never had a woman president is that no woman has ever worked hard enough and been competent enough to gain the office. This is one of the great lies told by people who need to believe that their gain has come only through individual effort and talent. The truth is that the vagaries of birth—money, race, religion, geography—also influence our fate and sometimes we are as lucky as we are talented. Or as unlucky.

While old age is gaining on me, I’m not dead yet, and there are some benefits to having been around the block a few times. A lot of what a younger person might feel is history remains for me current and personal. During the Watergate hearings investigating President Nixon, I was working unloading rough-cut lumber from railroad boxcars at a siding above the Columbia River near Bridal Veil, Oregon. It was exhausting work. And often painful—although we wore heavy leather gloves, shards of wood went through the gloves and into our hands. In the evening I sat pulling splinters out and soaking my hands in disinfectant then coating them with antibiotic cream while watching administration officials on television who were simultaneously explaining to and withholding from Congress what they had done or not done.

I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American Studies—a combination of history, political theory, and literature—and I was watching the American president lie about his administration’s involvement in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. It seemed that the more Nixon resisted telling the truth, the more truth came out. The president had an enemies list and he used the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS against those enemies. He bugged the offices of political opponents and hired people to infiltrate groups peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The infiltrators were to commit acts of violence so as to damage the peace movement.

President Nixon tape-recorded many of his White House conversations and, after a series of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, seeking to avoid impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned as president. Less than a month later his former vice-president and then President Gerald Ford pardoned the president.

So part of why I write is to pursue the truth. Maybe that’s inner truth—what it is to be a person. Sometimes, though it’s more social, more political. I don’t plan it but in writing I butt up against social reality. In the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space, I imagine the life of a sixteen-year-old Basque girl who in 1902 immigrates to the invented town of Wolf, Wyoming. In Wolf, Zelestina meets a slightly younger orphaned half-Arapaho, half-Shoshone girl. As the two become friends they, the narrator, and the reader discover connections between the oppression of Basques and American Indians.

All this leads me to the Trump presidency, a presidency guided by the absence of guidance, by a quixotic individual and quixotic appointees who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. The president governs by bluster and ego. And it turns out he is willing to lie regularly, publicly, and bigly. Of late we have heard him explain the recently passed House of Representatives health care proposal in terms that are the opposite of what the bill actually says.

In his lack of commitment to the truth, the president’s actions and speech endanger our society for, in the absence of a commitment to the truth, citizens cannot know what to believe or how to respond to events. In a small way, this repudiation of the truth threatens literature by threatening the integrity of our individual and collective inner lives.

I feel unsettled speaking about Trump when I meant to speak about writing but I have never before felt so concerned about the possible destructive consequences of a president’s actions. I’m uncertain if I can sit down at my desk and work on a poem or story. For the first time since I was in my twenties, I’ve felt that maybe I made a big mistake being a writer. Maybe I should have gone to law school. A lawyer after all might be able to help us resist some of the inhumane proposals President Trump has made—a 25 billion dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, executive orders that use race, religion, and citizenship to selectively keep people out of the U.S., budget bills with hidden agendas such as abolishing funding for reproductive health care services provided by Planned Parenthood or ending the Meals on Wheels program that serves many older and housebound people, health care reform that would lead to millions more Americans having no health insurance while exempting the U.S. Congress from the effects of the proposed reform. It’s just too much—cavalier cruelty against the poor and less powerful coupled with bold proposals to give ever greater advantage to the rich and powerful.

I guess I could write about it. And if I did, my thoughts on craft would be guided by the situation we’re in. I would try to speak spontaneously and personally as if to a friend and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster.

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David Romtvedt
"I was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up in southern Arizona. It was hot. I received a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop then worked with the US Peace Corps and Maison du Québec in the Congo and Rwanda. Later I worked building a children’s park and playground in Jalapa, Nicaragua, during the war against the U.S.-supported Contras. In Jalapa we were bombed by American jets flown with Honduran markings. After some years doing any job I could find—mostly labor--I began working as a writer, musician, and teacher in the artist in schools programs of Alaska, Washington, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming where after ten years of work in other states I was thrown out of a school for reading a poem called “Our Distance” that appeared in my book How Many Horses. I've taught as a half time professor at the University of Wyoming for twenty-two years. My most recent books are the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space (University of Nevada Center for Basque Studies, 2015) and the poetry collection Dilemmas of the Angels (LSU, 2017). Though I’m disheartened by the politics of the Trump era, I’m grateful to be here."





6 comments:

  1. Thank you, Susan and David Romtvedt for this wonderfully written essay. It says what I've been feeling for some time now. David hints at, but doesn't say directly, that knowledge and intelligence and history inform us as citizens. We us them as the basis of how we perceive the world and its politics. The lack of funding for the arts and humanities and sciences also serves to keep the voter ignorant and unable to make rational decisions about why health care, support structures, and education of the coming generations are so poor.

    A poorly informed and uninspired electorate can hardly make informed decisions based on truth.

    Thank you again, Susan and David.

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    Replies
    1. All the thanks go to David on this one. We truly appreciated his contribution on this.

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    2. Art,
      Thank you for reading and commenting on my thoughts here. I'm grateful to Susan for giving me the opportunity to write this piece.

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  2. David shows us why we need to continually examine our belief systems and our actions. Thankfully, we are not all made to be preachers or truck drivers. There is a place for all of us, and there are places and times where we all need to share our opinions on a stage of mutual respect.

    College educations, intellectual discussions, reading, writing, and the arts teach us how to live a full life and do not just result in jobs or careers. I feel as if I've used everything I've ever learned. David does this, too, with his writing and with this essay.

    I second Art's thank you's.

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    Replies
    1. Learning is indeed a thing you never lose, and everything we do adds up to the sum of who we are. Thanks for your comments, Myra.

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    2. Myra,
      Thanks for your comments on what I wrote here. I hope that experience can lead us to a higher level of compassion and an increased capability to examine critically what we read and hear.

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