Issue One Makers Jaffa Aharonov, Joe Collins, Roxane Gay, Maggie Ginestra, Ben Spivey and Kyle Winkler talk about creative communities NOW.
Super Arrow: I wanted to start by hearing about your own creative communities, and in doing so, how you’re characterizing the phrase, which is abstract but so very necessarily utilitarian as well…
Also, what does a creative community do? How do you see it functioning within your own artistic process? What’s its best self? Can it harm?
Kyle Winkler: For me, a creative community is a place where like-minded folks toss back and forth the medicine ball…The ideas won't find real ground until I can have another human to ingest them and synthesize them for me…I'd like to say that it's also extremely important to have people around who challenge and question your very writerly existence. I'm not saying one needs an arch nemesis. (Or maybe I am...) Rather, it's beneficial to have a diverse swathe of brains and styles and methods to play off yours… So that's how communities can help. They expand your eyeballs…
[Communities] can hinder simply by being human. People, writers, around other writers, will eventually create competition, no matter how innocuous or innocent. This can be wonderful. It's that small one-up-man-ship that can raise an artistic relationship to new levels. But, most times, it creates enmity.
I'm alone here. The wilds of northern Indiana. So after being surrounded [at school] by so many people in St. Louis, by so many opinions and great ideas and brilliant plans and projects and parties and readings and hang-outs and sell-outs and burn outs...I was ready for a bye-bye. A sleepy-time. Nap, nap…It was nice to have silence. To have my own humming head-wires fizzing and popping and leaving well enough alone…I certainly miss the companionship and the ability to share drinks, warm or cold, over words and ideas. And I hope I have that again someday soon. But until then, I relish and respect the solitude I have away from the community, the more to get to know my style and concerns and depths better, un-harassed by the pressing urge to always share, when, lately, all I need is to keep quiet and think.
Maggie Ginestra: Most of my friends are artists, and friendship is my favorite thing, the thing most like art, the thing more like art than art, playing at family with each other this way.
Always the thing that makes us make more? Always the thing that makes us make right? Always the thing that makes us make brave? Are we pooling? Are we diversifying? What is our job together, at night, at bars? What is our job together in the morning, in bed?
My dearest writer friends have helped me to live better, not write better. I have been bored to hate by poet talk. I have also been bored to hate by gossip. One dear writer friend named Amy Baily reminds me, through action, that fun is the divining rod for a healthy creative community.
I know I like a sense of stumbling upon. Discovering that gallery owner Galen Gondolfi can play drums like a willow tree in a storm. Joining a rock band with fellow poet Jay Thompson, him teaching me to not shake a tambourine like a toddler. Falling in in in to a creative partnership and finding its strange limitations that are my own and also not. Carrying those limitations. Letting them go unexpectedly.
Let’s be brave together…. Is that an oxymoron? Yes and no.
It's important to note that both Kyle and Maggie have started out talking about a very physical iteration of community. Kyle writes about getting away. Maggie's "stumbling" feels tied to proximity. I'm wondering whether these kinds of physicalities seem necessary to the "usefulness" or functionality of a creative community.
Jaffa Aharonov: There's this Venn diagram that's been hanging out in my head with the words "community" and "art". There's not always necessarily a ton of overlap there, and things don't necessarily become better when those two words are just laid on top of each other. They're not always bed-mates, and if they are, they don't always cuddle. I guess the physicality of a community is kind of like your given family. People and thoughts are there regardless of your feelings towards them. You might have a sibling you adore and feel wholly akin to and you might not.
I like when things feel organic. This applies to friendships/relationships for the sake of a friendship/relationship, or meeting someone I totally have a creativity crush on. I love when I just really want to be in a band with someone or work on a project with them, and, for the most part, this is through people whom I have lived in close proximity to at one time or another.
I find it totally useful when I attend a show or reading and want to scurry home to compose music or write. I often need some kind of external inspiration, but that I also need solitude to carry out my own bursts of creativity.
Joe Collins: I think we've all encountered the idea that there are no sounds in outerspace (although a lot of movies get it wrong). Space lacks a basic medium through which sound may travel (as air is a medium here, on earth). I like to imagine myself in outerspace. As an artist, I like to imagine myself in outerspace shouting through the void (at the void?) to someone else, anyone else. And of course it doesn't work. It's been a few short weeks since I left the fabricated community that is "em eff ay," and suddenly writing feels like little more than chiseling senselessly at my hard drive...or shouting into a vacuum.
On brighter days I imagine my artistic community--my post-"em eff ay" one, anyway--as a line of astronauts holding hands, spanning an indefinite distance into space. Or perhaps I see us in some kind of limb-locked formation of the type you see in those skydiving videos. Because here's the thing: for me, the community is the medium. They are how my thoughts and my writing exists, simultaneously the why and the where. If we all held hands in outerspace, we could make sound. We would be able to hear each other.
I write best, and always have, when I write for others. This is the why. My community is my audience. I think best when I think with others. This has also always been true for me. This is the how. I considered writing this email about the benefits of cross-genre dialogue between artists, and art as the reconciliation of the differences (between, say, sculpture and poetry). I hope we can touch on this topic too; it's why I personally head to bars, openings, events, etc.: the burrs and fractures of two artists speaking the same language in different dialects.
...but back to the point: that this is how I think, by handing my ideas to someone near me, who may hand them off or hand them back. I cannot--as some obvisously can--think in a vacuum. Everyone seems to have touched on, or come close to touching on, the importance of the physicality of community. Maggie wrote about our responsibilities while "in bed" with one another. I think there's something to that. I think the creative community--the physical one, the bars, not the online community, not this--carries with it the same type of risk a physical, romantic relationship carries, along with a similar type of reward. I can read The New Yorker, zines, blogs and status updates ad nauseum, and remain personally (physically) responsible for nothing. I am not required to respond in the same way I am at a gallery or reading with my friends and peers.
So what does the internet do to my tidy space-metaphor? I'm not sure. But I guess I'll leave it there, because I feel that I'm wandering into the territory of unformed thoughts. Here's where community comes in, I suppose. Help me think. Please, help me think.
Ben Spivey: I am involved in the online indie literature community as well as my local, in-person, real life community, yet the two overlap. Most of the writers that I know in the real world I first met in the digital. I read the standard lit blogs, HTMLGIANT, BIG OTHER, Emerging Writers Network, etc., which contribute a great deal to my idea of community. In the physical world I attend local readings, mainly the Solar Anus series here in Atlanta, hosted by Blake Butler, Amy McDaniel, and Jamie Iredell. Meeting and associating with people who are like minded is what a community is about, but it is also about understanding. Kyle talked about like-mindedness and the importance of views that challenge your “writerly existence,” and I couldn't agree more. The lit community can feel incestuous sometimes.
I want to define community for myself: community is the people who I rely on for proof reading and commentary; the people who tell me when I write something that stinks or something that doesn't. They are support, they are friends.
Some of the writers that I most closely identify with, and confide in, are ones that I've never met in person, but I've chatted with on G-chat, or Yahoo, or messaged through a series of E-mails. Community is electronic.
I do not think that community is synonymous with physicality though. I think that community is also the books and stories that you read and do not discuss, but absorb. What I mean is that your bookshelf can be a community, the interactions you have with those texts can be a community, an influence, a motive, or a deterrence.
I like what Maggie said, “that fun is the divining rod for a healthy creative community.” Writing, as a love, can be tiresome, difficult, all of that, but as a community it should be fun. For me, community is a way to escape myself, and delve into another person, invest in other people and in return learn about what I am creating. Maggie also said, “let's be brave together,” being brave is the chances that small presses take: people funding something they believe in. But there must be a persistence with it, a lasting [one], not necessarily a demandingly large body of creation, but a creation, and a belief that words will find a home in the heart of the reader.
Roxane Gay: I live in a very rural area so I don't really have a local creative community and never have. As such, most of my community is online. I am part of an amazing writing group, I correspond with lots of writers via my work co-editing PANK, and I also participate in a couple of literary group blogs, HTMLGIANT and BIG OTHER. I'm not sure how I would characterize a creative community because it's the sort of thing that's always shifting. For me, primarily, creative communities are about surrounding myself with people who are passionate about similar things, who support my writing, whose writing I support, who challenge me and really make me think about what I do and how I move in the world, who create a healthy sense of competition, and who, ultimately, make me a better writer and remind me that I'm not living in a void. Sometimes, it's just a group of people to have fun with.It doesn't always have to be about the writing.
At their best, creative communities remind us that we are not alone which I find so useful given the solitary nature of writing. Creative communities remind us that art and literature and people who care about art and literature are neither dead nor dying. Any community can be harmful under the right circumstances. Sometimes people will try to conform to a community which can hamper creativity. People are people so infighting and pettiness can break out but in my experience, that's the exception rather than the rule in creative communities. In a culture where creativity is not as valued as it should be, I often feel like we stick together in creative communities even if we don't all love each other. It's like having a posse of word nerds.
Kyle, small world! I know C. Newgent and met him at AWP this past year.
Joe, you described community as being something with which you must be “required to respond.” Ben, you have decidedly wider definition, including books, stories, et cetera. I’d argue that those texts which become community under this definition of absorption must compel one to respond, whether concretely or through writing. So there is still this responsiveness.
BS: Responsiveness: for me, writing is often reactionary, not always, but often. Therefore I am responding to something I've experienced (even other writing), something like a prompt.
Roxane, you’re saying that because your chiefly online community is “always shifting,” it’s more difficult to define. I’m wondering whether the perhaps low- or lower-risk intimacy of internet-aided communication gives a community a longer shelf life, in part because it is less cohesive? On the internet, are we all the nucleus of our own communities, the smallest increments creating more sustainable connections? Or, are we losing something in the process? Is there a lower demand for responsiveness online? For those of you less involved in an internet community, are you able to constellate your feelings about the benefits of physical community, (perhaps Maggie’s thoughts of serendipity or Jaffa’s experience-fueled inspiration), or your necessities as an artist, (as with Kyle’s need to be “un-harassed by the pressing urge to always share”), with this proclivity?
RG: You ask whether the perhaps low- or lower-risk intimacy of internet-aided communication gives a community a longer shelf life, in part because it is less cohesive? I would say that I don't know that internet-aided communication is low risk. People can get very involved with their virtual communities. I think it's an inaccurate assumption to believe they are any less risky, intimate, or cohesive than local communities. At times, I often believe there is more risk involved because in certain communities, we tend to reveal more of ourselves. There are people online who know more about me than my real friends. I find a lot of safety in the remove of online communication. I would also say that increasingly, virtual communities are not that virtual. I meet and socialize face to face with most of the people in my virtual community. Those encounters might only happen once a year at AWP but they do happen and do help to create that stronger sense of cohesion and intimacy and, ultimately, investment.
BS: Roxane, websites and blogs add to the feel of community for sure. When I say that I belong to, or identify with the online community, it's blogs and websites that I connect with, that I feel a part of, that I support and read, etc. The blogger community is amazing, supportive, and valuable.
KW: First, who says consanguinity can't exist between strangers? Second, this dialogue gains uber-interesting traction for me because a separate writer I know, the aforementioned C. Newgent, and I have been discussing a similar, or related, matter, viz., online presence and communities. And what I've noticed about a lot of the people on this email thread is that there are websites with your work or your "business" on it. I feel like this is sort of vital for a writer now, esp. with the proliferation of online journals and the digital interconnectedness. These seem like logical, and beneficial, solutions to writers who are either rural-locked from civilization (Roxane) or not in a place where such a creative community already exists (me).
I haven't done this, (website), yet because I feel self-indulgent. Does that resonate at all? I mean, recently, I wrote some short stories that I felt needed sharing, so I sent them off to a friend out in Spokane, Washington. This guy's a true friend, a great reader, and a great writer in my estimation. So I trust him. There's a fibrous bond there. He read the pieces and got back to me. He praised one and skewered the other. And while I accepted his criticism (mostly right on both accounts), I noticed my lack of concern or care for his thoughts. This response grows as I get older and write more and learn more about my work. I fear it could crust over me and inure me to staying reticent about sharing work. But, to be truthful, I think this is a reactionary move on my part, post-MFA. After workshopping for years, you get a bit resentful. At least, maybe I did...No, I did. Definitely. I know I did. My concern was that too much sharing resulted in writing by committee, or writing by groupthink. Sitting around that table seeded doubt in me that didn't exist before. Even outside of academia, creative communities can establish this sort of inlaid aesthetic. I bristle at that. Yet I desperately want someone to want to hear my work or read my work. Never have two emotions so carelessly intermingled in the same bed sheets without my permission.
BS: Kyle talked about how websites are vital for writers now, and I think he's right. One of the first things that I do when I read a story by a writer I am not familiar with is google them to find their Website. Kyle said that, “I don't have a Website because I feel self-indulgent.” I understand that feeling. I've contemplated deletion of my site for various reasons.
RG: I absolutely believe they are important. I get so many opportunities from people who have read a story of mine and then gone on to find my website. It also adds to that sense of community we've been talking about. I primarily blog about rejection, or at least, I use rejection as an opening in various conversations and I hear from writers all the time about how they like knowing that rejection, for writers, is truly a universal experience. Hearing these kinds of things serves as a great reminder that I am not alone in feeling the string of rejection or feeling overwhelmed at times by the futility of trying to be published. And of course, websites are a great promotional tool. If you want your work to be read, a website and other social networking tools can be invaluable. That said, I know plenty of successful writers who don't have a website, don't want a website and don't need a website. Ultimately, a website is only valuable for a writer if that writer makes it valuable. There's nothing sadder than a poorly designed, neglected writer's website. In those instances, no website is better than any old website.
KW: How do you deal with/rationalize the need to want to share with the need to keep things close to the chest? I understand all the points earlier about needing to have fun, to engage with others, etc. I jive with that line of thinking. I do. But the chest-keeping is a huge thing for me. And this contradicts, or complicates, the idea of a creative community, for me. Also, what of the feeling of those who you share your work with giving you lip service and not gut-level love. If I could eschew all for the one person who truly cared to read my work and give it their full attention for the work's betterment, I'd seriously consider indentured servitude or auctioning off my limbs.
RG: I rarely feel the need to hold my writing close to the vest. I absolutely write for myself but I also write to be read. Writing is my happy place and I don't have a complicated philosophy. I like to tell stories. I like people to read those stories. I like when people like those stories.
BS: Kyle said that keeping his work close to him is a big deal. I think what he's talking about is: should you please yourself or should you please the reader? Why do we make objects to share? I guess it all comes down to why we write. What is our motive?
KW: I feel like somehow I've given the impression that I don't want to be read and keep my stories locked in a human-sized vault. Not so. When I said I like to keep things close to the chest, I meant in the writing process. To me, there was a sense, within certain communities, that every aspect of the process had to be explicit and open and under discussion. I am more interested in a community fueling the thought processes that lead up to the creative act of writing. I hope that's clearer.
BS: Kyle also mentioned, “groupthink.” I hinted at that earlier by saying that writing communities can become incestuous. Or is it something closer to like-mindedness? Do others feel this way?
RG: I think that depends on the community. Any community can become normed after a while but I think that such things work in cycles. Things always change in communities. That's one sure thing.
MG: I like to write with and near people who are writing because they believe in the power of writing, and worry less about their own power as writers. So likeness is less scary for those folks. They are not afraid of not being special to writing. Writing is special to them.
JA: I'd like to point out that I feel like I don't exactly label myself as a writer. Well, no more than anything else I do, really. I don't have an MFA. My BA was in photography. I write a lot sometimes and then I do something else…I juggle my interests and needs, I suppose.
I don't have a problem with creative stagnation or whatever in that sense, as I'm not really doing the same thing that my entire community is doing. I am sometimes, but not to the point of feeling like I'm producing the same-old, same-old. I feel pressure ([but] pressure doesn't feel like the right word) internally and externally to be creative – to do something, but not really in any one particular way.
JC: This idea of writing communities becoming poisonous and/or incestuous keeps coming up. I agree with this, and I can sympathize with Kyle's thoughts re: workshop. I think there's an important distinction that needs to be made, or at least investigated: workshops can be artificially (or, perhaps, externally) constructed communities.
Bodies/communities/collectives can be created this way (that is, artificially), or they can happen more organically, like friendships. They can also either function wonderfully (not sure how I would define this) or fail, as we've noted. I began writing this email intending to posit that a more organically constructed community would be more likely to succeed; however, I now feel differently. In fact, I almost want to reject this idea as completely backwards. What do you all think? Does friendship imply like-mindedness and, therefore, a more stagnate artistic discussion? Doesn't the internet allow us the ability to more selectively pick our privy council--one that maximizes the usefulness of the feedback we receive? Has anyone tried this?
Artificial and organic communities are giving birth to and altering each other all the time, no?
KW: Re: Joe's comment about the internet and cherry-picking our "councils.” I tend to side on the thought that it's easier for people online to ignore you because you're simply a collection of pixels to them. They are free to ignore or engage. Devoted people will engage. Many will move on. Life intrudes. I've found that, in person, you can intrude quite well, become a part of one's life, and not feel terrible about it.
MG: I'm glad friendship came back up as I've been itching to replace it for the word “proximity” in the context of our dialogue about responsibility to each other, and to acknowledge that friendships can be developed and maintained remotely. Yet I'm thinking about the differences in how I behave as a pen pal versus how I behave as a neighbor. Survival, and healthfulness (physical, mental, emotional, and artistic) are more on the table, with proximity. And I think that I do have a desire to feel under the same weather as my closest collaborators. But not all of them. I want both…But also, geography seems like it could go on a list with privilege and age and all these other list-y things that shape us and don't. So, something about diversity being good…But also like-mindedness to me doesn't inherently lead to stagnation. There are so many ways to be alike. And a certain amount of likeness is useful to make difference more visible.
BS: Friendship doesn't always imply like-mindedness, and even if people are like-minded that doesn't mean that they'll experience a stagnated artistic discussion. I think the problem is with honesty. If friends are being honest with each other, and not just patting each other on the back, then art can grow. That's helpful and healthy.
KW: I fully agree with Ben that honesty must be first. If there's not that, then forget it. Though, to me, proximity means closeness, and while closeness doesn't mean friendship, it does mean another consciousness with which to share ideas. That's vital.
I'm more interested in knowing what people are thinking than what their aesthetics are. It's compelling to me to have a grasp or an understanding of how a stranger or friend figured out reality.
MG: Honesty, yes, great thing to call important, and a tricky thing. So many ways to be honest. I'm not so much worried about the brutality or gentleness of honesty, whatever. So what if i made something shitty? Maybe i needed to make something shitty (ie boring or scared) and talk about it with a friend. That can feel good.
BS: I like…the word “proximity.” This feels closer to the truth. Setting and relationship to space and people changes how I write, or at least what I write.
How do you mean, Ben? What does context have to do with it? How does it change your work? What's at stake when proximity is in the mix? Do others have thoughts about this?
BS: When I say context I mean the feelings in my stories, the feelings in which everything happens or how I approach the story. I recently moved into a new house and the sounds are different, the feelings are different, the rooms are different, the proximity I have to people are different. These types of things change how I approach a story. I can't explain it, but it's like having a writing space, in my case a writing chair. I like to sit in this one chair and write. Space can alter how I approach a story.
Figuring out reality: I guess that's what words are, or that's a part of it. Making sense of a moment in time.
KW: [Ben wrote], "Space can alter how I approach a story." I used to live in a large apt. off the ground with lots of light next to a library and a post office with sounds and people and movement. I did some of my best work there. I now live in a cramped, dark space with no welcoming spaces. I can tell the difference. Space is vital. Even on a word to word level, where I write will alter the product.
I'd like to veer us back, if I could, toward what [proximate or net-based] community has to do with spatial demands in creative processes...
BS: I think that sort of space can affect how a writer will prepare for a reading. Writing toward the audience. Or away from.
I feel like the people that are closest to me, both in person and net-based change how I approach writing, or at least how I think about it. I learn skills from the people around me, the writers and the not-writers.
For example: Before I read EVER by Blake Butler I had no idea that you could do that with words and space in such a compelling way. And that affected how I wrote, or approached writing. That's the community of words.
KW: I relish the online reading community. What was once a hard to find journal in a small bookstore, is now online for perusal. And while I hate to think of bookstores…not getting business, I am open to seeing how reading and writing changes in this new online form, where people you've never met, and never will, can comment on your stories or email you with thoughts. In one way, the digital community brings us closer, while keeping us far apart.
That looks corny to read. I hope it isn't corny to think.
The conversationalists have questions for you, readers. Visit the blog to see what they wonder.
///NOTES ON THE CONVERSATIONALISTS///
Currently, Jaffa Aharonov co-runs Slow Rocket Urban Farm in Saint Louis. Read her piece My Parents Have Forgotten I Was Raised on Their Farm.
Joe Collins is a poet living in St. Louis. Read his story Jeffrey the Whale & the Theory of Awesome.
Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Mississippi Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney's (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK and can be found online at http://www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released this fall. Read How to Mourn a Celebrity Death.
This summer, Maggie Ginestra is working on a zine about community health with 12 young writers in Saint Louis, MO, and answering the phones for the Muny, an historic outdoor theater. She also runs Stirrup Pants Chapbooks, which will soon be housed by All Along Press. Read her poems Asparagus and Possibly Corn and Then for Dessert, and Mute Button.
Ben Spivey is the author of the novel Flowing in the Gossamer Fold (Blue Square Press 2010). He blogs at http://www.yourbrainsblackbox.blogspot.com/. He lives in Atlanta. Read an excerpt of his novel.
Kyle Winkler lives and writes in northern Indiana. You can google his name for writing online. He's working on a novella called Boris Says the Words. Read his story Every Day You Get Up and Go To Work.