Writers-At-Large: Endangered Species
Writers-at-Large, an organization funded by a grant from the California Arts Council, dominates her focus these days. The objective of Writers-at-Large, Stahl says, “is to inform and educate in the spirit of bipartisanship. We aim to work with state legislators, as well as private industry, to show the correlation between the literary arts, or literacy, and higher standardized test scores. Writers and writing programs are as necessary to the health of the state and the education of our children as the air we breathe is to our survival.”
PAW: Say a few words about the beginnings of Writers-at-Large. What prompted you take on this huge effort?
I was approached by the California Arts Council to organize this network for poets statewide because of my concern for the erosion in this country of, not only our civil liberties, but a climate that fosters respect for writers and the written word. This ongoing deterioration serves a culture of fear, which ironically, and absurdly, is labeled a “culture of life” by our President, who clearly gets that there's a four letter word involved—just not the right one. My concerns inspired me organize Writers-at-Large and fight an atmosphere which makes it respectable to distrust and disrespect those who come forward, and do so at increasing peril, to report the news. In America , we take a free press for granted, but reports in The New York Times and other trusted daily papers indicate that the truth will soon have to come in a tamper-proof bottle in order to get out. Indeed, the goals of Writers-at-Large are a monumental effort, and one that is too large for any one individual. For Writers-at-Large to work, we must all roll up our sleeves and work together.
PAW: I realize that you are a very new organization. You have plans, but how will your objective to “inform and educate” be carried out? For example, if I were to volunteer, what specifically might I be asked to do? As a writer, what would I write?
JLS: The objective to inform and educate will be carried out in several different ways. Writers-at-Large will be dealing, on an ongoing basis, with books such as Luis Rodriguez' Always Running, which has been banned from various public school districts. We will also issue statements to the press about the editing of TV movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” on ABC. The movie “A Company of Strangers,” about the war in Iraq , was subjected to the editing of expletives under the threat of heavy FCC fines to PBS.
As a volunteer, or research intern, you'd be asked to find us grist for the mill, such as pending cases of writers being censored and books being pulled from the shelves of libraries. You'd be asked to interview reporters any pressure from newspaper management with regards to avoiding groups such as Writers-at-Large and PEN, or for taking an antiwar position. As a writer, you might be asked to issue statements to the press, write letters, sign petitions (e.g. the Reader Privacy Initiative by PEN American Center, as well as their Core Freedoms Statement), send emails to the appropriate parties and, most importantly, down the road, be prepared to meet with state legislators or prospective political candidates to discuss the role of writers and literacy to progressive social change.
PAW: What have you already begun and / or accomplished?
JLS: We've begun passing around information and researching these matters. While Writers-at-Large officially launched on January 1, the contracts weren't signed until mid-January, and my number one concern has been getting endorsements and memberships. We now have over 70 members. We are making statements to the press, writing letters, and getting the word out. Two upcoming fundraisers will discuss “ Writers of the Storm: Fake News and Public Decency in the Age of Terror.” One will be held in Berkeley and the other in Los Angeles . The panels of Writers-at-Large members will include poets David Meltzer and Deena Metzger, and San Francisco Poet Laureate devorah major, as well as journalists and other writers. They will deal with our role, as writers, in speaking to what the concept of decency means, who gets to decide that and why, and whether that decision diminishes the power of the pen; the dignity of writers; and the importance of diversity of opinion.
For what writers today are you specifically concerned? Who is on your “endangered species list”?
My number one concern is for journalists and purveyors of news, as it will become increasingly difficult to keep information flowing freely. A growing challenge over the next four years will be for newspaper and broadcast reporters to actually report what they see without having details edited out for fear of reprisals from this administration.
Another concern arises from the hefty fines placed on television stations due to so-called “indecency,” as well as from media consolidation, both of which foster a climate of repression and censorship. Anyone who once was thought of as an agent for disseminating news will be questioned or impugned as a kind of challenge to the institution of journalism itself. Also, we're concerned about fiction writers whose books are currently banned, or have been banned, due to parental pressure on school boards, as well as poets who have lost positions in community colleges, such as Deena Metzger, because the college administration did not approve of one of her poems.
Deena Metzger was fired in 1969 from a tenured position for reading her poem about censorship and pornography in the classroom, then eventually reinstated by mandate of the California State Supreme Court. In a similar situation today, what role would Writers-at-Large play in helping a writer through this process?
JLS: Writers-at-Large would issue a press statement, have a core group of members arrange a meeting with the department chair, and/or write letters. We would also explore community outreach options: approach a bookstore close to campus for a reading of the poet's work, as well as the specific poem that got her fired, try to involve the students of the college in question in an action against the administration's handling of the affair, write op-ed pieces to local newspapers. In short, we would raise Cain.
PAW: Please speak more about the control of information by the media in the United States today. What writers / journalists from what news magazines or other sources need advocacy in our courts?
JLS: The focus of Writers-at-Large is proactive or preemptive, thus we aim to serve as a conduit, or a source, through which information about which news reporters, magazine writers, and screenwriters gets out. The gravest threat to this democracy is secrecy and having a tourniquet placed on the release of information. Recent cases are those of Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine Whether we agree or disagree, with the reporter's aims, we need to support the right to get information out and support those who convey this information. There are many more cases of reporters, in Rhode Island and elsewhere—indeed, even San Francisco , who are being harassed. The same rule of thumb applies here as applies with the faculty member in Colorado, Ward Churchill, who lost his position as department head and was all but castrated in the marketplace for expressing a controversial opinion about 9/11. We must defend one's right to express his/her point of view whether or not we agree with that point of view. That said, there is pressure being exerted on reporters, at virtually all large papers, to avoid activities that might suggest solidarity with the above-referenced journalists, and some reporters are even facing being fired for participating in antiwar rallies and / or joining organizations like Writers-at-Large. At least one mayor San Francisco newspaper has reportedly fired some of its staff for their participation in antiwar rallies, as well as making their political persuasions known when they're off duty. With regard to media consolidation, I encourage your readers to check out the website of Center for Creative Voices in Media and read some of the extraordinary articles by Jonathan Rintels, executive director, which deal with the connection between media consolidation and censorship.
PAW: Your list of prominent individuals who have endorsed Writers-at-Large is impressive and intriguing. Why did they join you, and what will be their role, if any?
JLS: The reasons for endorsing Writers-at-Large are as varied as the individual endorsers. That said, the common denominator is concern for showing that we, as writers, can act in solidarity and support each other. Many of those who endorse Writers-at-Large , such as Stephen F. Rohde ( director of PEN USA domestic Freedom to Write Committee, as well as past president of Southern California A.C.L.U., and past president of Beverly Hills Bar Association) and Jonathan Kirsch, are familiar with projects with which I've been involved in the past, e.g. “Engaged: Poets for Democracy & Core Freedoms” and the “National Poetry / Non-Proliferation Month” poetry reading I organized two years ago in Ojai. They know of my long commitment to the principles of free speech and concern about censorship. City Lights Bookstore gave us the thumbs up because of their 50 years of defending freedom of expression and their recognition of the need for writers to act in unison to preclude the kind of McCarthyism that appears to be taking form at the moment. Others, like Dick Russell, have been primarily concerned with writing about the natural environment, and they realize that the intellectual environment is at risk: ideas have become targets of those who previously confined their hunting practices to animals on four legs.
PAW: What specifically can poets do in support?
JHL: Poets can organize readings in their own immediate communities and neighborhoods that highlight the core values which are most important to the survival of the literary arts and to the survival of our Constitutional First Amendment rights. Speaking out against the war in Iraq is a good thing, yes, but speaking out against nuclear proliferation is also a good thing. Making it clear to the community at large that the arrest or censorship of one poet and writer of any kind will impact all of us is something that we poets can do to ensure that our words can be heard and not bleeped out in schools and libraries nationwide. Yes, we are facing that kind of threat, and we get to either sit back and wait for it to happen or work as a collective to see to it that it never does.
Jayne Lyn Stahl is a widely-published poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter whose work has appeared in such notable journals, anthologies, and magazines as Exquisite Corpse, City Lights Review: 2 , Stiffest of the Corpse (a City Lights anthology), The New York Quarterly , and PEN America Journals #s 4, 5, and 6. Her screenplay, Shakespeare & Company , about the censorship battle around the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses is currently in development. Ms Stahl is a full member of PEN USA , The Academy of American Poets, PEN American Center , and a vigilant supporter of the First Amendment. Her poetry has been translated into French, German, and Italian, and the author was recently interviewed by FuoriCasa Poesia , an Italian internet magazine affiliated with the University of Bologna. For further information, contact Jayne Lyn Stahl at firstname.lastname@example.org