Commentaries - October 2008

Recently I interviewed Gerald Stern, who wrote a book about the 1972 Buffalo Creek (West Virginia) mining disaster that has become assigned reading in many if not most law schools. The book has made several major contributions to the prosecution of larger owning entities, chief among them the principle and tactic of piercing the corporate veil. Jerry as an attorney was always a storyteller, and so writing a book seemed a natural follow-up to a case such as Buffalo Creek, where he prosecuted on behalf of hundreds of miners. His new book is Scotia Widows, about another mining case.

The interview and discussion were webcast live on KWH-TV and are now available as a video recording. Go here to view the recording, and here for more about Stern and the program at the Writers House.

Thanks to the hard and brilliant work of Mark Lindsay, Jessica Lowenthal, and Bill Sulit (and others), the Kelly Writers House has a newly designed and reorganized web site.

Back in the fall of ’95 the founding gang (the “hub” they were and still are called) designed the original web site as in itself a planning mode. Really. It was surely the first of its kind at Penn. We created the idea of the Writers House through the collaborative making and non-hierarchical but categorical linking of web pages, which were merely instantly published documents that might otherwise have remained private, internal, committee-like, read by just a few instead of available to anyone. Down with private, internal, committee-like behind-scenes pondering! Up with accessible collaboration! We wrote the first manifesto-like constitution (mission statement) for the Writers House (non-possessive “Writers” — lots of discussion about that), and many other documents and concepts (including designs for rooms of the House, plans for writers’ series, ideas for a fresh approach to a young writer’s apprenticeship) collectively through a 100-message-per-day listserv, with text going rapidly from the layered/group-revised emails into the shared unix files in html format that would then quickly become part of the growing web page. Today no one would build a web site in such a crazily democratic manner. And having done it the way we did, I am sure we made the redesign of the site these past few months nearly impossible, painful. (In such cases, web redesigners are tempted to scrap the whole thing and start over. Because of our mission and our peculiar pedagogical origins, that was not an option.) Mark and Jessica had quite a job before them: save the old pages, figure out a natural array of buckets to put them in and yet retain a sense of the original feel of the site: deep, complex, almost insanely devoted to archiving the process by which diverse people did and do things at 3805 Locust.

To say again a main point here in a somewhat tech-wonky way: because the Writers House was created just at the moment (1994–95) when the world wide web’s capacity for collaborative thinking-through-writing could be realized through linked visual realizations of stages (versions) of planning, our site took on and still discloses a communalist dynamism that is (to me at any rate) the key feature of a learning community, where how is as important as what and where the form of what is done is the only compelling reason for doing it.

Jessica and Mark and Bill are among my heroes of today. Some shout-outs too to those who taught me and us about the process-oriented power of the web as a planning device back in the mid-90s: Jack Lynch, Sam Choi, Carolyn Jacobson (Carolyn was a Writers House original too), Ira Winston (enabler of all such things), the late Jack Abercrombie, Dave Deifer, Jim O’Donnell (the first person I ever saw, in ’92, have a face-to-face meeting with me while at the keyboard emailing with others), Mike Eleey, Meng Weng Wong, Jay Treat, Michael Nenashev, and Alex Edelstein (who was a student then and seemed to get his entire education while working with Deifer on our original web site — and who then went to Seattle to do web stuff for this young small venture that had ideas of selling books online). Here’s to web 1.0!

“A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence.”

Barack Obama actually said that. Here’s my not well-documented source, with no date/place attribution. It really does sound like him. At first the idea exhilarates me, but then I begin to wonder about this moderate man’s conception of legislation, especially if it’s the case that he will be working with a significant congressional majority in both houses. Then again, that we might be electing a person who thinks about the way the world works in connection with the “good sentence” is heartening.

Amazon has now made available almost the full text of Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens and Jose Rodriguez Feo, which I edited in the mid-80s with Beverly Coyle at Duke University Press. Prior to Secretaries about eighty percent of the letters Stevens wrote to the Cuban poet-editor — member of the literary movement called “Origenes” — had already been published in Holly Stevens’s Letters (1966). But a number of Stevens’s letters, including several of the more idiosyncratic he ever wrote, had not been published, and none of Rodriguez Feo’s. Stevens’s letters without the Cuban’s, it turns out, are only readable in an abstract lit-crit sort of way — in a way that left the question in one’s mind: what the hell was this young Cuban saying to the great poet, after all?

So here is your link to Amazon’s digital Secretaries of the Moon.

I’ve written here before about the gay Cuban literary culture Stevens was somewhat wittingly walking into when he struck up such an intense correspondence with Rodriguez Feo.

I have also written here, months back, about the primitive fantasies the letters with the young Cuban enabled.

Finally, there’s this page I put up about the book some years ago.

Tomorrow morning early I leave for a week’s true vacation. Unlikely to blog from the paradise we’ve chosen. Tennis, hiking, seafood, reading unassigned books more likely. Seeking such pleasure? Get in line. (Look again to this space on October 19 or 20.)