Marked The Mastodon

After years of tweeting, a lot — too much for me, in fact, though some topics never get enough press, including the bicycle transportation news I citizen-journaled from one of my Twitter accounts — this year I’m experimenting with giving it up.

Thus, so far in 2023 I’ve been saying less of what I think or think about “out loud,” at least on those social media shores where thoughts are the most scattered and strewn across thousands of others, like so many glistening pebbles in the surf, drawing hours and hours of bent-over looking, pocketing some, thousands more left unseen and ungathered. To what end, and whose purpose? Which pebbles are randomly seen depends on the sun reflecting off their wetness, on the daylight of algorithms and business owners, as much as on any one pair of eyes. The Twitter shore is fundamentally anti-democratic. Along with showing you what it decides you should see, you can’t even change your mind and take something back, you can’t delete, not really. E-scribbled thoughts can’t biodegrade like thoughts written in pen, on postcards or paper. Tweets are more like plastic in the ocean, stored in permanent archives like forever-pollution in some hulking data center, less destructible even than the fossils in Maya Angelou’s poem:

“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages…

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.”

— from Angelou’s On the Pulse of Morning

Without much announcement, I quit tweeting cold turkey in late February and pulled out my reading list. Already I’ve read multiple books, at least ten, including Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry, the best introduction to the beat poets I could have asked for. (And my copy is signed by the author!)

I never forgot Beckett’s book waiting on my shelf for years, but this year, after picking up Gary Snyder’s Riprap at the library for some forestry research I was doing, it was the right time to settle in and read Beat Poetry. I wanted to learn more about the era, about the quieter, less prolific voices overshadowed by Ginsberg or Kérouac, and I was finally ready, if that makes sense. I hope it makes sense to Larry at least, who became my ad hoc Beat Poetry professor via his book. Because before reading it, I never thought I identified with the Beats; sometimes, I’d go so far to say, they turned me off. I wanted to try and understand what was behind my ambivalence, sometimes resistance, to the Beat poetry I’d encountered. The way Larry styled the book made for a painless introduction, allowing my self-analysis to co-exist as I relaxed into the reading. Perhaps I’d previously sensed that, to the Beats, I was just “a woman” at a distance, the occasional object of a gaze, a mammal pasting up her sheets, lovely or otherwise. The object of Ferlinghetti’s poem could never be his subject. But being that woman, being her and wanting to say something lasting too, but being watched doing the laundry instead, or riding a bicycle to a grocery store without bike parking on a road with no bike lanes, is kind of what it is to be a “Beat” right there. I’ll pocket that pebble to think on.

Beyond feeling more literate about a prior generation of poets, it felt good to keep my promise to read this book, to delve into it, have the Beats off my chest, even if that promise was only made to myself. Meeting Larry Beckett several years back, and gaining these insights into the Beats now, in 2023, was meant to be.

Along with reading, freedom from tweeting has me progressing with writing projects. Another book I read, The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo, surprised me by stating: “Many writers and many writing teachers believe reading and writing have a close and important relationship. Over the years I have come to doubt this.”

How strangely liberating to hear a writing teacher say this! I see what he means. Too many Writing Teachers® rely on, “you’ve got to read in order to write,” which is fine, except if they go on to compulsively suggest lists of contemporary authors you “should” read that your writing reminds them of, with little or no other instruction. A word of advice: if a teacher is doing this with you, call them on it; ask them for more detail. While these lists, at first glance, seem custom-tailored for you, they’re deceptively inorganic and lack fiber. Like processed food, this type of “instruction” is too easy, sold off the writing program shelf at a time when a young writer is surely seeking more powerful sustenance. I suppose the, “You Want My Opinion? Here, Read This” phenomenon may arise from a particular brand of teaching philosophy. More likely it’s the result of a teacher being tasked with too many admin burdens. That is, they lack the time and mental capacity needed to teach.

I still have some of these lists, piled up from past writing classes like Twitter’s new For You algorithm. My “To Read So I Can Write” lists are really only from one or two instructors at most, out of many talented and sincere teachers. Still. Having been such an earnest student, guilt for ignoring them was stuck in my writing arteries like plaque, and Hugo shook it loose. Believe what you will about the necessity of reading to learn writing (and I believe it), being told that the key to unlock your own burgeoning writing voice is to read some published author your teacher sees in you can create a kind of chore, a circular one at that, around both reading and writing. In a way, it completes the effort. Like a dog biting its own tail, there is nothing more to write after hearing which of your more successful peers you sort of sound like, because now there is always them before you, and their work’s already done and published. In other words, it takes away that which “excites the imagination,” as Hugo puts it. Note: I’m not talking about literature class curriculums here, nor, I think, was Hugo. Of course, of course, reading trains writers. I’m writing this after reading Hugo, am I not? But his writing is nothing like mine, as far as I know, and more importantly, no one told me to read him.

Caveat: I’m not everyone. Maybe being compared to other contemporary writers, and told to read them, really works for students who are not me; I suspect not, but I can’t know for sure. I’m merely deciding subjectively that, organic reading lists, those made up of authors and books found by coincidence along less-traveled-by paths of intent, are best for the health of professional writers-in-training. Does it take more effort and time to make a salad than unwrap a Pop-Tart? Yes, yes it does. But if the Pop-Tarts you bought make you feel crappy, it’s okay to toss them in the garbage.

Reading Hugo, whose book had also been on my (organically compiled) reading list for years after vacation-buying it in a Manzanita beach bookshop, sent me googling one of my wisest* writing teachers, Henry Carlile, who I realized may have either studied with Hugo or ran with that crowd. It’s something he probably told us, his students, over whiskeys after class, but I unfortunately have forgotten. How can two decades have gone by since studying with Henry, and those lingering storytelling sessions he’d take our small group of poets out for after class? Along with the stories, that campus bar with the greasy ozone and red, ripped vinyl upholstery booths, is long gone. I heard housing for students is there now; they live in 2010s architecture, in the wraith of poetry classes and post-class fellowship that I’m sure I didn’t appreciate enough in real time. I don’t even remember that restaurant & bar’s name. Yet moments from those tables suddenly seemed more vivid now than they could have then, as I scrolled and clicked and read all Henry’s poems that has online. In one, I thought I saw what might have been a reference to Triggering Town. There’s that imagination Hugo was talking about.

*Two others with great teaching wisdom being Jean Janzen and Elizabeth Knight.

Every now & then I miss being able to just pop in & speak up. I mean on Twitter, though more so for past classes with former professors and writing colleagues, an actual impossibility except in my own mind and memory. But since February, any time I’ve gone over to the “bird site” I’ve found the changes to be so weird and ineffective and disruptive that my resolve to stay off that app is strengthened. It’s another end of another era. Maybe it really is better to tear out the booths and grease-soaked ceiling tiles and pull down the entire restaurant. It’ll never be the same anyway. Those of us who were there can tell stories of how it was, before it gets any more embarrassingly quaint to try and sit squeezed in the space between jagged tears in the vinyl.

It’s really a relief, to indulge in delayed gratification of sharing my thoughts publicly, otherwise known as, “thinking before you speak.” In that spirit, I’m giving thought to blogging about another of the books I just read. It’s a book (I’ll keep the title quiet for now, but it relates to journalism) that I think anyone who lives in Oregon, or who might move here, should really read. And I can say they should, because I’m not their teacher. But really, that post will mainly elaborate on why I’m glad I read it.

With all that said about thinking before speaking, sometimes counting to ten flies out the window. Last week, I saw a news snippet from Tennessee, and suddenly had to post out loud again. I spent much of last Thursday listening to inspired speeches by the Tennessee Three, as they’ve become known. But it didn’t feel right to revisit Twitter, now wearing its 2023 architecture, familiar red vinyl booths ripped out, no tables with shared baskets of fries. Luckily, a few months ago I’d staked some ground in a couple of Instances over at Mastodon. I joined because I don’t want to lose track of so many personas and journalists I’d found at Twitter over the years. But I’ve been in introverted “lurker” mode, mainly reading posts by Jeff, the Newsies instance leader, to get a sense of tone, and learn how journalism on Mastodon works. I have almost no connections there. It didn’t matter; I needed real-time, out loud conversation about the two young Black men being “expelled” from the offices to which they’d just been elected, for doing what they were elected to do. Imagine being one of their constituents; imagine someone democratically won a majority of the vote, and the legislative body decided to conduct a very partisan action to void that election. That action and these leaders’ response to it is definitely something the whole nation needs to be watching, if only we can pry our eyes for a second off the ex-president (I think we’ve been succeeding). The best part is, as of today, in a surprisingly swift turn of justice, the Black legislators, both named Justin, have already been reinstated to their seats. They’ll likely be voted back in permanently. And apparently, if an expelled Tennessee legislator is reinstated, they can never be expelled again. It’s almost hilarious how it’s working out, in a laughing with relief kind of way. If this story were a Shakespeare play, it’d be one of his best.

I was briefly in Memphis in the summer of 2016, having flown in en route to a family reunion. It was already humid as can be at 7AM, when I woke before my alarm and left the hotel for an early morning jog before traveling on. Below are a few photos I took as the sun rose, along with a couple clips from last week’s televised actions of the Tennessee state legislature. I meant to write a post about my visit to Memphis back in 2016, but I guess I was too busy tweeting. Not today, Twitter.

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