Saturday, March 16, 2002

Suzanne Lummis

One of my favorite quotes comes from a fellow named T.S. Eliot, who once said about writers, "Hacks imitate, artists steal" which, while acknowledging the fact that all new work is connected with what has come before, doesn't define the distinction between artistic plagiarism and artistic recycling.

Obviously, the first is only about a superficial re-rendering of established work, but the second is really about the wholesale theft, absorption and creation of new work from old. West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet.

Nearly every film and pulp Western, Shane, The Magnificent Seven and True Grit, all from the Sixth Century Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.

Tonight we have with us a poet who is not only a fan of T.S. Eliot, but also of Raymond Chandler and fairy tales and the misty, dark, cruel-streets-of-the-city genre known as noir.

Not only Director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, actress, playwright, performance artist and founder of the high-spirited, text-driven troupe Nearly Fatal Women, but also a thief in the highest artistic sense, her work and words crisp and not only teeming with irony and humor, wisdom and spirit, but pure magic... mercy... I want to have her baby. (Issue #16) (Spring 2001)

Tom Spanbauer

Featured on June 19, 1998 and March 16, 2002

For me, the term "dangerous writing" conjures up the following: I have a sudden inspiration, a snippet of something flashes through my mind, a line or two that I don't trust myself to remember. I want to get it down on paper before it dissolves, so I start frantically looking for a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper, you know an old lunch sack, an envelope, anything, just to get that fragment jotted down before it leaks out of my brain, and then, the damn pen won't work, or the wax paper sandwich wrapper I found won't take the ink, and just as I find an old collection notice that's perfect, some joker overreacts and honks his horn, though I'm barely straddling the centerline, but the way he's carrying on you'd think I was totally in his lane and we were bound for glory. He waves jovially enough as he passes, but I do notice he's not using all his fingers...

To be honest, that's not what Tom Spanbauer means when he refers to "dangerous writing," also the name of his legendary writing workshops. Rather, he is referring to the act of being honest with oneself on paper. On the surface, that may not seem like a dangerous or even daring act. But it is. When the words one believes to be the truth about oneself are actually written, they take on a power that is no longer exclusively controlled by the writer. The spin that could be applied when the ideas were merely in a person's mind or coming out of a person's mouth melt away. The words lay the heart bare for all to see. Those words become a separate entity, an unflinching, unvarnished document of the self.

Tom Spanbauer writes unflinching, unvarnished novels. It's a tough enterprise to take on, especially when the subject is homosexuality in the over-mythologized Old West, as seen in his 1991 cult classic, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. And it apparently doesn't get easier with time or practice. Ten years have passed between books. He says of his recent epic, In the City of Shy Hunters, a fictionalized chronicle of the decimation of gay culture in New York City during the early years of the AIDS epidemic: "Writing this book almost killed me."