Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Spending our Words

While I was in Leipzig this summer, fiction writer Erin Wilcox filled in as a guest reader for the project. Lately I’ve been out of town some more, doing readings and visiting classrooms, (come see me if you’re in Boston or Middlebury), and Erin’s kindly pinch-hitting again. So in honor of what will be her third appearance at the podium (at this Wednesday's council meeting), I’m posting a note she sent to me back in June, reflecting on her experience. Enjoy, folks. Erin gets it so right.

Erin Wilcox
A traffic light contraption at the podium’s edge blinked green to signal my three minutes had started. I took a breath and began to read.
            About a page in, my worry that I might suffer spontaneous aphasia or paralysis of the tongue faded. I took on the point of view of Alice Alexander, a restaurant owner who uses her curb sign to advertise daily specials and political commentary. This literary activist was so easy to connect with, I actually felt a little exposed. Couldn’t I have been given an old man or a morose six-year-old to play? Was I being typecast here?
            I read about Alice sweating in the sun, debating how to arrange her limited letters to create today’s message. Today, I thought, we have so few words and letters to spend. Our readers’ attention doesn’t hold out like it used to.
            Between sentences, I scanned the row of faces I had watched throughout the public comment period. This was city government in action, but I didn’t get the feeling our citizens’ words were swaying anyone with power. It felt more like a cathartic space in which the civically oriented were called upon to vent their grievances so they would go home feeling they had made a difference. The mayor and council members sat onstage and played their bland parts, allowing the production to unfold as it does week after week. The public participated, fulfilling its circumscribed role. 
The traffic light blinked from green to yellow. I sped up, just perceptibly, to fit the whole excerpt within my allotted time. Alice demoted her dinner special to lunch status and sacrificed two dollars a plate so she had enough letter Ns to post: ELIMINATE CORPORATE WELFARE.
I liked Alice. She gave me the opportunity to say the words “right-wing shenanigans” to a Republican mayor, on TV, in a state that recently wrote bigotry into its legal code. In my heart I was again the young UC Berkeley student whose protest sign, meant for a cardboard coho salmon, read “Save Headwaters or I’ll Go Extinct.
            Tucson, The Novel was not likely to find favor among anyone invested in the script of local government process. I knew this even as I reached the final sentence, wishing my contribution to the project were received with uproarious applause. For citizens offering their three-minute public comment in earnest and expecting others to do the same, this Brechtian denial of cathartic release might chafe. For the mayor and council members, the performance shifted their usual role of actors in a civic drama to audience for a work of art. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them enjoyed the reading, but their stonewall expressions should not have surprised me. Whatever the city council members’ internal reactions, it would be a breach of character to show them.
Mayor Walkup was itching to cut me off—I could see it in his eyes—but I finished my segment just as the traffic light turned red. One person, my husband, clapped as I took my seat. The pattering of my heart decelerated. As the next member of the public approached the podium, the room seemed a bit less hostile.
Erin Wilcox’s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Soundzine, Stoneboat, Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska (University of Alaska Press), Veil: Journal of Darker Musings (Subsynchronous Press), and in radio broadcasts including KXCI Tucson’s A Poet’s Moment, Broad Perspectives, and Alaska Public Radio’s AK Radio. In 2010, she exhibited a collaborative poetry installation at the Front Gallery in Tucson. The assistant nonfiction editor of Drunken Boat and former copyeditor for Alaska Quarterly Review, Erin maintains a vigorous freelance editorial practice and writes about writing for various magazines, including Copyediting and TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska, Anchorage