Saturday, November 28, 2015

CAROL BLY: Domestic Subversive

University of Chicago Divinity School

Instead of an MFA, the degrees I earned were an MDiv and an MA in Religious Studies.  Was this the right decision for a writer to make?  It was for me.  The emphasis was not on proper punctuation or technique, not on shifts of consciousness, but on the most major concepts of history and the deepest dilemmas of being human.  Of course, not every MDiv or MA in Religious Studies is like this.  It takes a fairly major university that can teach the secular study of religion without being dismantled by sub-groups based on faith, inside the circle of believers so thus self-protective.  

The Master of Divinity degree is the professional degree for ministers, which is based on the institutional dimension of religion -- though recently there is a trend to try to escape that context by claiming to be a “public minister” -- but the legal regulation of ministers is based on their sponsorship by an institution at least as big as a congregation.  Just going around doing good is not enough.  Who picks up the check?  Because it is meant to be institutional, this degree should be carefully investigated ahead of time or you’ll find yourself learning how to run a Sunday School or the history of sacred music or how to take bids for a new roof. Not that those are bad things, but in the modern ministry there is rarely time to write for oneself.

The good part is that what you write must be presented on a Sunday morning (or the equivalent) face to face with the people who pay your salary.  Their reaction will be plain before you and, at least in my tradition (the one that awarded me the MDiv) there is freedom for them to talk back on the spot.  And you must write a certain amount EVERY Sunday. I’m grateful for this training, which was often in the moment and from the gut.  It built strong habits.

Rev Mary Scriver preaches in Montana sometime in the Eighties

The MA in Religious Studies is best if it is in an academically traditional university where one must choose a realm (mine was anthropology), then a method, all the while learning the basic canon of thought and writing in that field so that the academic community can respond.  Everything is precedent.  Normally there is no person-to-person conversation; this is a written world.  It is vulnerable to paradigm shift and paradigm freeze; my difficulty was that my method was experiential and phenomenological. The school hadn’t shifted to accept that.  (An earlier version had been stigmatized.)  Also, they were dubious about women.  The professions (professors, doctors, lawyers, clergy) are traditionally male.  But you knew that.

These thoughts are prompted by an article about Carol Bly in the platform on the imprimatur called “Crossing Genres”, edited by Alto.  Alto claims “intentional subversion is the only submission requirement” but Bly is the most conventional subversive ever.  Check out those Barbara Bush pearls.

 Whoever wrote her Wikipedia entry said this:

Bly's short stories are known for their realistic characters and situations, which are fully developed within the small number of pages the story allows. Although many of her stories are set in Minnesota, the people and the situations transcend local boundaries, emphasizing pride in one's work, resourcefulness, the ability to laugh at one's self, and the ability "to hold values beyond one's own immediate welfare."

Perhaps inspired by Robert Bly's co-founding of American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966, Bly used her literature to reflect modern-day concerns. Her work is in many ways an ethical treatise, often featuring a "bully", embodied by either a person or a corporation, who takes pleasure in forcing his will on another person or group of people. Some of her stories also explore evil, which, to her, is seen in people or organizations which find enjoyment in enslaving, humiliating, or crushing their opponents. The stories emphasize redemption through empathy, which, to Bly, is the step of deliberately looking at how one's actions impact others.

Early Carol and Robert Bly

Late Robert Bly and Carol Bly

A typical Bly protagonist is a conventional woman who has been content to live in "ignorant complacency," but, through her own strength and intelligence must first identify the moral crisis facing either her or her community and then work to accomplish change. In her best works, the moral center is hard to find, as each character has some claim to the reader's sympathies.

I’m a good fit with Carol Bly: rural, mid-continent, a little over-conscientious, and I suppose my moral center is hard to find because it is so obvious: it is the land itself.  But there’s another reason for my affinity: marriage to a remarkable man, so remarkable that marriage cannot be sustained.  The irony is that both these two people -- together and apart -- have been major figures in the MFA world.  But Robert Bly is defined as “mythopoetic” (Joe Campbell for men) and Carol Bly (with her moral concerns) fit easily into religious categories.  Unitarians loved them both and used their work.  The liberal side of religion and literary thought united to fight against the war in Vietnam. 

In a way I stand between the two Blys because of my relationship with Blackfeet which gave me a less “whiteman” sort of center.  I try to find a way to join the mythopoetic with the morally centered.  (U of Chicago Bibfeltian “both/and” doctrine.)  The trouble with being married to “Iron John,” is that it’s all about him.  Looking for a poem from each meant finding all Robert and no Carol.  Here’s a Robert Bly poem.

Surprised by Evening

There is unknown dust that is near us 
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill 
Trees full of birds that we have never seen 
Nets drawn with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there 
It has come through the nets of the stars 
Through the tissues of the grass 
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end we think:
We have hair that seemed born for the daylight;
But at last the quiet waters of the night will rise 
And our skin shall see far off as it does under water.

But I’m sneaky so I found this paragraph from a “talk” of Carol’s that I would count as a poem.

“How can I take the dent in the lid of a canning jar well-sealed, or the plain look of surprise on the face of a cow, when you meet it on the highway and it will not turn aside, or the way snow, when it first falls in the mountains, is so fragile you are afraid to touch it, at all – and turn these things through my writing into something clear enough, and passionate enough, that teen-age boys in America will not have to go do a war somewhere in order to feel alive.” – Carol Bly, as remembered by writer Kim Stafford, of Portland, Ore. -

The difference between myself and Carol is that I am not at all domestic or maternal.  I make either a loner or a skeptical sidekick, categories not recognized lately.  I don’t wear t-shirts with slogans but neither do I worry about publishing.  Mine is a childish way of being, but these are ways to escape Iron John.  They ARE subversive.

No comments: