Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”

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Our words this week come from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” from his posthumous collection, Armageddon in Retrospect.

The excerpt reads:

“The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all cliches, ‘fortunes of war,’ and another, ‘They asked for it. All they understand is force.’ Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.”

A veteran of WWII taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut’s writings on war and the institutional machineries that create it have informed my perspective on pacifism and patriotism since adolescence, specifically in thinking about the human costs for soldiers and civilians. Vonnegut spent the first part of his career writing directly or indirectly about the sickening inhumanity and personal trauma of the American firebombing of Dresden, a mission that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including women and children. He’d spent the days during the bombing hiding in a slaughterhouse and the days after working alongside Germans to search for survivors while stacking burnt bodies for mass cremation. The American media hardly spared a headline for victims and vets alike, the government sparing even less. I can only imagine Vonnegut’s anger and despair at this, a young man recovering from the suicide of his mother. His humor, calm criticism, and emotional generosity in the face of trauma taught me a ton on how to navigate heaviness and injustice, how to use art and voice to make something half a century ago halfway around the world feel present and vital and human.

Despite the art of people like Vonnegut and idea that we are the most advanced civilization in the history of our planet, the United States has been at war in one capacity or another for well over half of my life. Recently we elected to give an unstable old man access to the largest nuclear arsenal in history, a cyberbully with the foreign relations tact of an aggressive fifth grader in the schoolyard and the empathetic capacity of a rock. The fear of the Cold War is creeping back into the collective psyche through the language of politicians and the media. So, as the flag waving of Veterans’ Day fades until next year’s brief show of nationalist pride and social media posts, I suggest we build a statue of PFC Vonnegut holding a basket of burnt babies in front of the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon with a plaque simply saying “The Fortunes of War.” Just as a friendly reminder.

– NR

kvonne

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Stephen King’s IT

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Today’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Stephen King​’s “It.”

The passage reads:

“The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself—that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller, something as bogus as a coke high: purpose, maybe, or goals, or whatever rah-rah Junior Chamber of Commerce word you wanted to use. It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like one of that clown’s trick balloons with the Burma-Shave slogans on the sides. The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you. You could go on wearing bluejeans, you could keep going to Springsteen and Seger concerts, you could dye your hair, but that was a grownup’s face in the mirror just the same. It all happened while you were asleep, maybe, like a visit from the Tooth Fairy.”

Known in pop culture as a master of modern horror, King’s ability to evoke the magical, endless quality of childhood relationships and events may be his true gift. His ability to make tangible the formless, vibrant feeling of growing up naturally builds characters you invest in because you can see yourself and your life in those experiences, regardless of the setting. Children and characters with mental abnormalities often occupy a role connecting the rigid adult world and the supernatural in King’s stories precisely because they have not been boxed in by the cold comfort of dead logic, but rather view logic as just one tool in conquering fear in all its forms.

I’m currently past the backend of King’s aforementioned transition period and, thus, lie squarely in early adulthood. Reading this passage gave words to something that’s been happening in front of my mind for the last few years. I’ve felt the air leaving my wheels, in morning commutes, pointless meetings, endless deadend job applications. However, I feel fortunate in that I at least have known there’s a hole to be patched, with friends, art, learning, love. I know the kid in me will keep leaking out, slow and steady, but I’m going to keep rolling as long as I can.

– NR

sking

Wordsmith Wednesday: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

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Our words this week are from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.”

They are:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities”

I am not a well-travelled person, but nowhere feels like Chicago to me. I’ve ran as a kid through its tiny south suburban backyards and scraps of forest, ridden my bike down over busted curbs on avenues that stretch straight from the city to the cornfields, started high school nights in farmland and ended them in a packed basement venue on the north side, cruised slow down side streets on the south and west sides, felt intimidated and invigorated by the bustle of downtown. I’ve driven down Lake Shore at night and stopped to spit in the water. My family has called no other place in this country home for generations. Late third wave immigrants, they walked the same streets as Sandburg. At least some of my family butchered hogs in the Union Yards. There is still a coarseness and a strength to the city not acknowledged in campaign speech propaganda or in the talking points of ignorant media pundits. Outside forces stay trying to exploit the city, but they underestimate its cunning. They mishear the vitality in its high hats and bass knocks, in its feedback and raised fists, in its screeching airbrakes and late night cries. They sneer at its schools and desperate students, at its streets and crying mothers, at its sheer determination to keep existing in face of forces that want it to fail, inside and out.

But I’ve tasted giardiniera submerged in red sauce on a summer night. I’ve smelled exhaust mixed with sweat and something sweet cooking inside. I’ve seen the wonder in the eyes of a child at Kershaw Elementary. I’ve felt the warmth in the smile and salutation of the cashier at Harold’s. I’ve heard the ancient rhythms of buckets beating out the song of the city. A century after Sandburg, Chicago still sneers proudly above big shoulders at the charlatans and cowards that keep its name in their mouth.

– NR

carl-sandburg

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday stems from Kelly Link’s short story “The Summer People,” in her collection Get In Trouble.

It reads:

“When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.

Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing it for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of the equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.”

So much of life is transactional. Currency can take form as physical money, or time, or advice given and taken. We often forget that at the base of almost every interaction is an exchange of goods. If we forget this, if we begin to give and give and give, we lose ourselves in the process. Our individuality becomes intertwined with those whom we are looking after.

In “The Summer People,” Link explores the loss of identity and individuality within a family and, particularly, at a young age. Franny is indebted to The Summer People. Her Ma was indebted to them. There is no other life, there is no other option, she must always listen and do what they ask. They gift her with useless, beautiful, unique, outdated objects/toys/knick-knacks, as a thank you for scouring the city for their needs. Though this relationship has tilted to one side, this is all she knows, this connection with The Summer People is what defines her.

It is easy to lose ourselves in our relationships with others, allowing what we do for them to validate us as human beings. Reminding ourselves where we stand in the midst of these transactions helps us to keep a firmer grasp on our individual identity.

– KK

Kelly-Link

Wordsmith Wednesday: 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”

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The words this week are the lyrics to 2Pac’s song “Brenda’s Got A Baby” from his 1992 debut record 2Pacalypse Now on Interscope Records.

“I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name
“That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family”
Well, let me show you how it affects our whole community
Now Brenda really never knew her moms
And her dad was a junkie, puttin’ death into his arms
It’s sad, ’cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know
Just ’cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow
But oh, that’s a thought, my own revelation
Do whatever it takes to resist the temptation
Brenda got herself a boyfriend
Her boyfriend was her cousin, now let’s watch the joy end
She tried to hide her pregnancy, from her family
Who really didn’t care to see, or give a damn if she
Went out and had a church of kids
As long as when the check came they got first dibs
Now Brenda’s belly’s gettin’ bigger
But no one seems to notice any change in her figure
She’s twelve years old and she’s havin’ a baby
In love with a molester, who’s sexin’ her crazy
And yet and she thinks that he’ll be with her forever
And dreams of a world where the two of them are together
Whatever, he left her and she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor and didn’t know, so
She didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap
I guess she thought she’d get away, wouldn’t hear the cries
She didn’t realize how much the little baby had her eyes
Now the baby’s in the trash heap, bawlin’
Momma can’t help her, but it hurt to hear her callin’
Brenda wants to run away
Momma say you makin’ me lose pay
There’s social workers here every day
Now Brenda’s gotta make her own way
Can’t go to her family, they won’t let her stay
No money, no babysitter, she couldn’t keep a job
She tried to sell crack but end up gettin’ robbed
So now, what’s next? There ain’t nothin’ left to sell
So she sees sex as a way of leavin’ hell
It’s payin’ the rent, so she really can’t complain
Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name
She’s got a baby”

This is pure storytelling from a figure who remains legend and somewhat of an enigma in modern American culture, partially due to the juxtaposition of his self-ascribed thug image and demonization by high-profile conservative figures with the skilled, thoughtful, and emotional poetry found throughout his body of work. In just under two minutes on this track, Tupac Shakur creates a character to discuss poverty, sexual abuse, community responsibility, teenage pregnancy, and other social issues from a close-up, personal perspective rather than through the dehumanization of a headline. He is an observant, intelligent street reporter explaining the root causes, blending the personal with the political, rather than exploiting the tragic effects like the media often does. Only twenty when these words were released and only twenty-five when he died, Shakur was a poet at heart navigating his past, his reality, his imperfections, and the challenges of his/our time with an open heart and an open mouth. The world needed Tupac to tell these stories, his stories. We needed to see him grow, to reconcile his gentle with his gangster, his poet with his panther. I hope there’s heaven for a G.

– NR

tupac

Wordsmith Wednesday: Danny Brown’s “Fields”

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The words we’re highlighting this week are from Danny Brown’s song “Fields” from his 2011 album XXX on Fool’s Gold Records.

The lines are:

“It’s like they all forgot man, nobody care about us
That why we always end up in prison instead of college
Living in the system, working kitchen for chump change
Lost in the streets, niggas playing that gun game
Where nobody wins, just a bunch of mommas losing
Dead body in the field, nobody heard the shooting
We living in the streets where the options is limited
Cause its burnt building instead of jobs and businesses”

When I first saw/heard Danny Brown in my dorm room back in 2011, I was immediately drawn to his whole thing: busted tooth smile, weirdo hair, rock star attitude. His approach all felt genuine, like he was in his own lane lyrically/stylistically and was inviting you to ride passenger as he swerved full speed. That’s why I’m highlighting a chunk of a verse that juxtaposes the blown out bizarro bravado Brown is typically known for. The media loves to hold up statistics of violence in major cities, especially within black communities, but hardly ever makes the logical jump away from race to socioeconomics. Urban poverty, like that found in Danny Brown’s home city of Detroit, breeds a culture of drugs/gangs/violence because to some those are the unfortunate means to the most American end: money. When traditional economies don’t support citizen’s families or simply don’t exist, alternative economies emerge. Through these words, Brown provides a window for outsiders to see the root causes of the crime scenes they see on the nightly news, humanizing harsh realities that networks sensationalize for the story. If politicians started listening to poetry instead of pundits, maybe they’d learn that paychecks do more to curb violence than police do.

– NR

dannybrown

Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a poem from Nayyirah Waheed’s collection salt.

It reads:

“remember,
you were a writer
before
you ever
put
pen to paper.
just because you were not writing
externally.
does not mean you were not writing
internally.”

It is often difficult to remind ourselves of this. We do not stop or start becoming a writer at any point just because we aren’t physically writing. Our minds are constantly writing novels of their own, coming up with stories, drafting scenarios, reiterating our feelings and thoughts, all internally. This is the most constant and unrestrictive form of writing. In this form we do not hold back, there is no one around to judge but us. We/society is the only one that holds us accountable to this arbitrary definition of a writer. We are always, constantly, writing, do not let the physicality that is placed behind writing hold you back from being/feeling productive as a writer. We all do it in different forms at different times in our lives. How is not what is important, it’s the fact that we do that is.

– KK

Nayyirah