imagesTomorrow night’s Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy student reading is the last chance this fall to hear the words being written by your peers.  

Over the last couple of years within the Riggio program, I have both read my work and actively avoided reading publicly. I used to balk at the idea of leaving the quiet and safety of my desk. I wanted to write, not read aloud. And even after many readings—student, thesis, 12th Street launch parties—I can still feel my voice shake for at least the first page and a half.  

In the past two weeks, querying my fellow students as to whether or not they would be reading tomorrow night, I have heard all the familiar reasons they will not be reading. I say “familiar,” as they used to belong to me.

Adrián Jiménez (A.J. to most), last year’s editor-In-chief, used to write something brand new the afternoon of a reading explicitly for the occasion. I found the thought terrifying. The idea of having such a comfortable relationship with my words so quickly seemed a nightmare. At that point, I saw standing at the podium in front of the audience as a moment of judgment, so how could I possibly read words that I had only judged myself for a few hours?

Then I looked around the room. Most everyone else was as nervous as I was, and these were my peers. I remembered Douglas Martin relaying a story to me of his college days, when he would take his required texts out of the library. The story ended with his professor asking the class, “If you don’t buy books as writers yourselves, how can you ever expect someone else to buy yours?”  That may be a roundabout way of telling my larger point: a vibrant and healthy writing community is built from within.

So tomorrow night I will be reading something, perhaps words I have yet to write. And I hope to see a lot of you, the Riggio community, there as well, as readers, listeners or both. All the info was in last week’s Riggio newsletter and you can still sign up to read if you e-mail Luis. See you there!

Room 510 @ 66 West 12th Street, 6:30 PM


Obama 2008I cannot tell a lie: I was not always a supporter of Barack Obama, our new president elect. Early on in what has proven to be one of the longest presidential campaigns in American history, I didn’t think a candidate could run on a platform of hope. I argued that “hope” contained little content; it was simply a word attempting to capture a feeling.

Well, as I watched our nation elect Barack Obama last night, I was awed by the efficacy of his words. I would be remiss to not mention that as his campaign wore on, Obama added content to round out his platforms of “change” and “hope.” He put forward ideas that are substantive and responsive to the crises of the American people.

Obama has a remarkable ability to use words to encapsulate a swell of emotion. Just think of his inspirational rallying call, “Yes We Can.” Is the populace hungry for words, or are they hungry for passion? And can those two desires run concurrently and successfully?

Other words were tossed around during this campaign: elite, terrorist, socialist, Marxist, communist. Watching Barack Obama become our president elect gives me hope that the populace actually listened to what was being said. Our nation takes its citizenship and civic duty seriously, and that, to me, seems like change. 

Within the Riggio: Writing and Democracy Program, we are confronted with varying interpretations of the word democracy, and it is often said that writing in itself is a political act. It has been said that today, half of the country will wake up disappointed. But I would argue that as Americans, we can find common ground in the execution of choice that took place yesterday. The American people listened, processed, and exercised their freedom, and that is an edifying end to this election. It’s a success for everyone, and even those who today find themselves disappointed, can attempt to find hope in that.

It was only last Spring that Senator Obama enlightened us about the characteristics of Pennsylvanians, saying, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them, and they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration, has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

And over this past weekend it would appear we, as a nation, acquired a 51st State in the Union, the state of North Virginia. In defending the idea John McCain would lose the state of Virginia, with polls leaning towards Obama, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior adviser to McCain, stated, “as a proud resident of Oakton, Va., I can tell you that the Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into northern Virginia, and that’s really what you see there. But the rest of the state, real Virginia, if you will, I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message.”

We live in a world with internet, 24-hour news channels, and live blogging, which accounts for a lot of words being spoken and written, at a rapid pace, and what we seem to lose in the fray is the ability to step back, think before we speak, and choose the words that say what we actually mean. In an effort to get sound bites out quickly, words and intent seem to become opposed, and I would argue the result is that dangerous, divisive sentiments are being put before the American people.

In two weeks we elect one man to be our leader. The executive branch of government is an office in which we allow just one of our citizens to give the entire population a public voice for the world. And as I weigh my decision the word I consider most often is “American,” as in; which man does actually speak for and represent the majority of this nation’s population?

The media is certainly participating in the devolution of language as evidenced above. Perhaps the Republicans were not wrong to criticize the way the media pounced upon Sarah Palin’s nomination for Vice President. Initially, instead of impartial journalistic reporting, the first few weeks following Palin’s nomination were filled with cruel rumor-mongering, going so far as to attack her children, and even question the parentage of Palin’s youngest son.

As I write, as I claim to want to write, to participate in a public discourse, be it journalistically, poetically or fictitiously, what I see around me leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. In an essay on moral vision, Norman Mailer wrote:

“Democracy is the throbbing embodiment of the dialectic— thesis, antithesis, and synthesis ready to become the new thesis.

You cannot have a great democracy without great writers. If great novels disappear, as they are in danger of doing, and our storytelling is co-opted by television and journalism, then I think we will be that much farther away from a free society. Novels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy. Americans were affected for decades by The Grapes of Wrath. Some good Southerners even developed a sense of the tragic by reading Faulkner…

I’m right and I’m wrong so often that I have no interest in convincing others to think the way I do. I’m interested, rather, that we all get better at thinking. If a book is good enough, you cannot predict how your readers are going to react. You shouldn’t be able to. If it is good, it is not manipulative, and everyone, therefore, can voyage off in a different direction.”

So I return to the word that I believe is the heart of the matter: American. Each citizen has their own personal interpretation of what that word means, and are also entitled to their interpretation. The diversity of thought and belief in this country are a direct result of the freedoms we enjoy, and are privileged to employ as citizens of this nation. The two men running for President have already been given great opportunity to have their voices heard around the globe. The writers who create the space for that voice, enjoy an opportunity that is a mere fantasy to other nation’s populations. And these privileges are largely taken advantage of, as they come with a great responsibility no one seems to uphold anymore. Take a minute, take a breath, and say what you mean, because lately no one seems to mean what they say.

“I can no longer stand this miracle that is knowing nothing in this world and having learned nothing but how to love things and eat them alive.”

-Pablo Picasso

As writers we go forth, exploring the world, devouring our surroundings and recasting them within the realm of words. At 12th Street we take those words and interrogate them, hold them to the highest standard of “do they actually mean what they are saying?”

This question seems most critical as we bring to life 12th Street Online, giving an immediate voice to our ever changing world and the way in which we are digesting it.

By the time 12th Street’s 2009 print issue is released, what we know today—our nation’s economy and politics, our elected officials and our place within the global community—will all be very different. Our print issue, I hope, will have a timeless quality about it, whereas here online, we will be able to give voice to the daily shifts in our country as both artists and as citizens.

Great change is often accompanied by trepidation and nervousness, but the changes already occurring here at 12th Street fill me with confidence. As the new Editor-In-Chief, I want to welcome the new staff members and say how excited we all are to be getting to work. Our submission period is lengthening and is set to begin next week on October 15th and will remain open until December 15th. That is four times as long as it was last year. We are also expanding the parameters of whose work we publish to now include the entire New School community. Both of these changes speak to the promise and potential of 12th Street’s future.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to welcome you, the readers of our blog, to visit us often and participate in the literary community we are attempting to build. Our mission includes promoting literature as an engine of democracy, and that guides our sensibility in maintaining this blog as an open forum for creative expression.

The vastness of this world inspires me and encourages me to constantly seek out more, and I am lucky enough to have been given a public voice to share what I find. 12th Street Online extends the offer to you, use language to interpret this world we inhabit and share it here, with us. I look forward to reading about what you find, love, devour and offer up for others to enjoy.


Anna Utevsky