Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Post in which the Poet Admits to Being a Fragment

36º ~ sun that bodes well for spring

No matter how much I try to slow down, take deep breaths, and really notice the world around me, I seem to remain fragmented, bits of my mind mulling over the home improvements in the works, other bits making sure nothing has slipped through the teaching cracks this morning, a few more bits of gray matter worrying about some family members whose problems I wish I could solve with a magic wand, a scolding bit that chastises me for not writing a poem last week and for not focusing more intently this morning on my poetry world, and bits and bits and bits...

This is week eight of our 16-week semester, and while I have done a much better job of saying "no" and not over-extending myself this spring, I'm still feeling quite rough around the edges.

I haven't submitted any poems to journals since January. I have a stack of printouts of calls for submissions waiting for me. I even have new poems to send. What is the delay? You can't win if you don't play!


Last night, I attended a presentation on The Oxford Project, which is a photo-journalism piece based on the residents of Oxford, Iowa, a tiny, tiny town just west of Iowa City. In 1974, photographer Peter Feldstein set out to photograph as many of the residents of his own town, Oxford, and the surrounding rural township as he could. At the time, he took one single shot of each resident who volunteered and displayed the results in town. Twenty years later, he returned to the project and ended up re-shooting anyone who was still around and willing to participate. He also brought in journalist Stephen G. Bloom to interview the residents and write about their life stories. This eventually turned into a book.

Let me begin by saying, the photographs are amazing records of the changes people go through in a span of two decades. During the presentation, Feldstein and Bloom showed about a dozen of the paired photos with text and talked not only about their process, but also about the people themselves. And this is where I began to have some trouble. Bloom interviewed each subject and then boiled their lives down to the "killer quotes" from the interview, often focusing on the sensational moments in their lives. There was a sense of amazement on his part that folks from such a small town had experienced such "interesting" lives or had such "rural wisdom" to share.

As the evening wore on I began to worry that the audience was not chuckling and laughing with the people of Oxford, IA, but at them. The people in the photos who told their stories to the world were largely working-class men and women, and there seemed to be a sense of them being "Other" as they were portrayed by the text. These are the people from whom I come, my roots, my heritage, and I felt a bit like we were being studied as some "primitive" group. Now, let me say that some of this reaction could arrive from years of having to defend a rural and agrarian way of life in the face of educated urbanites. Yet, I do believe there was a class issue at play. Here were the learned scholars from the University creating art and commentary from the raw material of the joys and heartbreaks of the manual laborers, the hunters & fishers, the house cleaners and veterans.

All of this brought me to the question of artistic responsibility. I do not believe that the purpose of this project should have been to revere its subjects, and I do believe that Feldstein and Bloom genuinely care about these people, but I also wonder how the text in particular might have been different if written by someone from within the group, someone who had grown up among these people. And yet, I do not believe that an artist must be tied irrevocably to his or her own community only. Once again, I remain fragmented.


Nancy Devine said...

i understand the fragmentation. sometimes i wonder if it isn't the modern condition. as i got out of my car for work today, i thought about whether any of my endeavors are making progress.
i, too, come from a relatively rural area. (though i live in a small city)my experience has often been that educated urbanites seem to not quite get what rural life can be. at that point, stereotypes come to the foreground. (lots of qualifying language here, because i don't know how true across the board my claims are)

Sandy Longhorn said...

N., thanks. I should also qualify my post with this: my comments are a result of the 90-minute presentation I attended. I've ordered the book and will spend more time with the entire project once it arrives.

SuziG said...

I remember seeing an article showing parts of the Oxford Project and thinking the same thing. I think the main problem is the use of simplification. It's not just that these are different people judging others, but that type of simplifying does not make either party look good. E.M Forrester defined "flat" characters" as ones that can be characterized in one phrase or less & that is what these people are attempting to do. No one looks good summed up in one phrase, nor do they look real. I find this project a bit lazy

Quintilian B. Nasty said...

If the project itself is laughing AT the residents of Oxford, then that pisses me off. To no end.

I'm tired of folks looking down their snooty noses at rural communities, whether it's the audience's problem or the artists'.

Kristin said...

I thought about no posting, but when I saw that my word verification was "docloth" (which I saw as do cloth, which I take as a command to return to fiber art), I took it as a sign.

I'm only 2 generations removed from farm folk, so I know what you mean. My grandmother says she knew that her farm family was in a higher class than her husband's because they had an outhouse, and her in-laws just went outside to the woodsy part of the property to do their business.

I've lived in small Southern cities (Montgomery, Alabama; Charlottesville, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee, Columbia, South Carolina) and even smaller towns (Newberry, South Carolina), and I've noticed a similar ignorance about the south, often from people who didn't live there long or got their ideas from movies.

Likewise, my dad was in the Air Force, and you don't find many military kids working in academia. Lots of ignorance there.

And don't get me started about how few people grew up going to church, the way my family went to our Lutheran church (even on vacation!).

As I get older, I'm amazed at how many cultures I feel comfortable in, how many "languages" I speak. It's a gift.

I look forward to hearing what you think about the book.

Anne said...

You might enjoy the photographs of Disfarmer (1884-1959), a photographer of rural people from Heber Springs, AR. Link:

His photographs are clearly ones that respect the people photographed, but occasionally the people who have "discovered" him and his work seem almost unseemly in their celebration of his seeming mixture of naivete and sophistication as a photographer. It's a naivete they assume exists because of his rural life and roots. It's insulting, of course, to assume artistic sophistication is the purview only of the urban.

Sadly, without these same people, I am not sure the photographs would have been collected and put together. It's a constant tension in art (especially when the words "outsider" are ever implied about the artist). I often get this feeling during contemporary documentaries about rural people--- that they flirt with the line of exploitation and perhaps misunderstand the rural people they portray.

Sandy Longhorn said...

S., Yes, it was the simplification that bothered me.

Q., I don't think the intent of the project was to look down the nose at the people of Oxford, but I'm afraid it might be the result, again, most paricularly b/c of the text.

K., Thanks for sharing your bio. I'm also amazed at the number of "languages" I speak and how I move between classes.

A., I need to check out the Disfarmer work. He was mentioned during the presentation. Again, I wonder what the photographs would have projected without the text, in the case of The Oxford Project. Would they have received such acclaim? It is a fine line.

Thanks to everyone for jumping into this conversation. I'll definitely be ruminating on all of this for some time to come, and I'll post when I get the book, so you can read my impressions of the collected work.