One of my students told the class tonight that one of her favorite books is Franz Wright’s, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, and I told the students how initially I did not want to read this book because of the title, but when I got past that, I ended up enjoying it for its sass and verve, its acrobatic language, its chill and grandeur mixed with light-heartedness.
I didn’t want to read it because the title smacked to me of class and elitism and privilege, all things I don’t have. Martha’s Vineyard is a place I think it’s safe to say, people like me don’t get to go. Like Monaco and the Hamptons, private universities and the Upper East Side, there are clear guidelines keeping people like me out. These guidelines are simple; if you are born into the wrong income bracket there are many places you’ll never go. Even if I could chisel my way to Martha’s Vineyard, I expect they’d find me out and I’d be voted off the island.
Of course, most of the great things I’ve seen and places I’ve been were not expensive: The sun rising over a 13,000 plus foot pass in the High Sierras while the wind ripped across the moonscape dark side of Lake Helen, swimming in a sulfurous mangrove swamp in Livingstone, Guatemala, hanging over the bridge in Ronda, Spain, even shading my eyes against the bright beauties spread out at Zuma Beach.
But when we write, we invite our readers in or shut them out. When I read Ann Beattie’s description of designer bags, shoes, jeans, I’m bored. I have no point of reference, I don’t know what she’s talking about. Which is why I think writers like Doris Lessing, Cortazar, Marquez, Calvino, Borges and Jamaica Kincaid, write stories that you can enter without necessarily inhabiting their point of reference.
Once you mention a Mercedez, you’ve created two camps: The Mercedez lovers, the Mercedez haters. Once you mention Martha’s Vineyard, you’ve divided the world into the haves and the have nots.
I like Ray Carver and Ron Carlson because I’ve been inside those stories, but I like books like Kevin Brochmeier’s Brief History of the Dead and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake which invite us into another world as well.
When you use intellectual language, somebody is going to stop reading, you have to think about whether you want that somebody to stay at the table. Is there any way to make it work? Or maybe you want only smart people reading your work. Anne Carson is writing for smart people, I like Anne Carson’s work. I think she should keep it the way it is and keep wilding with language. I’ve even come to like Susan Howe.
When Red Hen began, I wanted to publish work that invited more people to the table. I was tired of hearing that no one read poetry because it was all too academic and boring and you need at least an MFA to read it. Now, I like to publish a variety of work. But as a writer, I think it’s good to think in terms of audience who you include and who you exclude by your choices of details. And Franz Wright’s book is terrific. You should read it, you might like it.