The poem that threatened “public tranquility”

Saw Wei, pictured left, whose “only ‘crime’ was writing a poem,” has been released from prison in Burma, “nearly five months after his sentence expired and two and a half years after he was sent to prison for ‘inducing crime against public tranquility’.”

How did Saw Wei, according to the government in Myanmar, threaten public tranquility? He wrote “February the Fourteenth,” an eight-line poem about Valentine’s Day, which was published in Love Journal, a weekly magazine based in Rangoon. We published an anonymous English translation in PEN America 10: Fear Itself (the translation was later reprinted in Harpers):
Arensberg said:
Only once you have experienced deep pain
And madness
And like an adolescent
Thought the blurred photo of a model
Great art
Can you call it heartbreak.
Millions of people
Who know how to love
Please clap your gilded hands
And laugh out loud.
“February the Fourteenth” is an acrostic poem: When the first letters of each line are put together in Burmese, they read “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.” Than Shwe is Myanmar's 77-year-old military dictator. The issue of Love Journal in which “February the Fourteenth” was published sold out quickly after word of the coded message spread.

PEN continues to work with the Open Society Institute to pressure the government in Myanmar to follow the rule of law and release the “many other writers, journalists, and bloggers still imprisoned in that country today, including Nay Phone Latt,” who received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award this year. Learn more about (and get involved in) the campaign here and here.


Alain de Botton, Thomas Beller, and Rick Moody reflect on Twitter

Over at Guernica, Joel Whitney says that “Alain de Botton has humanized the mechanical beast that is Twitter.” As de Botton himself writes in PEN America 12: Correspondences, that is precisely the goal:
The moral, as always, is that we have to find ways of making technology work for us... the best inventions tend to have flexibility built into them, they should be able to accommodate a whole range of responses—not least, some idle philosophical maxims.
Joel has selected a few of his favorites maxims from de Botton’s Twitter feed, such as: “Modern romanticism: we go in search of one person who will spare us any need for other people.” You can read de Botton’s reflections on Twitter in our forum.

There you’ll also find Thomas Beller’s thoughts on the platform. Twitter, Beller says, has allowed him “inside a poetic process that was previously unknown to me.” Before, he explains, poetry “had a slightly medicinal quality to it... a faint aftertaste of self-improvement.” But the 140-character boxes of Twitter force you “into a realm of brevity,” and even “insist on a kind of cadence.” So he has found himself writing little numbered riffs (I call them postcards)... Sometimes,” he adds, “I’ll even go nuts and rhyme.”

The “postcard” Beller shared for our forum recounts the time his band opened for Blur in 1992. It ends with him signing a girl’s jeans, then seeing her father in a minivan waiting to her and her friends home. This gives Beller, in the present, pause:
9 Now I’m a dad, too, with a little girl who rushes to strange men to grab their leg, and smile. I think, Oh God. What are you going to do?

10 That is a memory from the Marquee, 1992.

Rick Moody also reflects in the new issue on the formal constraints of Twitter. As was widely discussed at the time, Moody published a short story on Twitter, and in a short essay (written in 140-character segments), he explains, first, his motivations:
there is something about the character-counting box that I find really thrilling, really exciting. So I got this idea that I should
attempt to write something, a narrative something, within the confines of the permitted 140 characters of Twitter. A postmodern haiku cycle..
He goes on to describe the publicity that was generated before the story began to appear, and the frustrations people expressed afterward.
Before the story was “published,” which is to say before it was “tweeted,” it got attention for its chutzpah. Still, no one had yet
read it. It existed in a publicity-oriented space, which I don’t think is a literary space, exactly. Forty thousand read it on Twitter,
more than have read most of my books. And I suppose that is good. But then there was a significant backlash, owing to “retweets.”
He concludes with a personal lesson he’s taken from the experience:
I love experiment. I love challenges. I love language as it mutates. But I also think that books are the most stable home for what we do.
And so fittingly, perhaps, the print copy of our new issue, perfect-bound like a paperback, is the only place where you can read the rest of his reflections. And if you’d like to read the story he tweeted, “Some Contemporary Characters,” on printed pages or otherwise, check out Electric Literature.

(By the way, we’ve re-booted our now annual subscription offer celebrating the publication of a new PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, which this year features stories by Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Annie Proulx, William Trevor, and many more. Get the collection free with a subscription to PEN America, while supplies last.)


Guest Post: Ben Greenman on writing letters to fictional characters

One of the options in our latest forum is to write a letter to a fictional character (you can read Pico Iyer’s letter to Thomas Fowler, from The Quiet American, here). The writer Ben Greenman, who published a book called Correspondences in 2008, had a similar idea: In connection with an expanded version of that book called What He’s Poised to Do, he launched the blog Letters With Character; we asked him to write about it here.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Correspondences. It was published by Hotel St. George, a visionary small press in Brooklyn, and it was more a box than a book—a banded, folded assemblage that contained three small pamphlets, each with two short stories. The stories all dealt directly or indirectly with the art of letter-writing, and how it both aided and impeded human communication.

There was a seventh story printed directly on the outside of the box, and it was intentionally uncompleted: I left lacunae in the story in the form of unwritten postcards sent between the main characters, and I invited readers to imagine them and send them to me. The Postcard Project wasn’t entirely new, of course: it was a mix of Mad Libs and Choose Your Own Adventure and crowdsourcing. But the postcards that came in had a strange energy: people took up arms against one character, or strove to create sympathy for another, or hijacked the narrative entirely.

Early last year, Correspondences migrated over to Harper Perennial and evolved into a longer collection called What He’s Poised to Do, named for the intentionally uncompleted story. My editors and I briefly debated reviving the Postcard Project, but decided instead to come at the question of letters and readers and fiction, and how they collide and collude, from an entirely different direction. The result was Letters With Character, a blog that invites readers to write letters to fictional characters. We launched the site at the beginning of May, and the letters trickled, and then poured in. Within ten days we had more than a hundred submissions: letters to Austerlitz and Tyler Durden, to Karen and Amir, to Charly and Brett and even Blue Coat. A few authors (Conan Doyle, Melville, Murakami) surfaced frequently, and certain genres (fantasy and particularly vampire fiction) were disproportionately represented.

But this is just demographic data, and the sample size is fairly small. What is more apparent is that almost from the first, readers perceived the site’s purpose in vastly different ways. A significant minority of the submissions were simple letters of devotion to characters, fan mail thanking Harry Potter for inspiring children to read, or congratulating Holden Caulfield for holding his own against a tide of hypocrisy, or praising Jane Eyre for just being herself. They could not all be published, in part because there were too many of them and in part because they were not, in the end, particularly interesting. They stayed outside the work, interacted with it only insofar as they pointed and smiled. Others were quick hits, brief missives criticizing a character’s choices, and usually romantic choices. This seemed like a valid approach—all of us have been busybodies when we read—but it was not always the most rewarding one.

The meatier letters approached reading not as a passive experience, but as an active one—and, moreover, as an equivocal one. They admitted that the best characters are difficult to locate too precisely: attractive characters, because they are ultimately unavailable to us, can cause us to feel a longing that verges on repulsion; and inoffensive characters, precisely as a result of their ingratiating nature, can inspire surprising upjuts of aggression. These better letters recognized that literature always touches us in many places at once, and they used the conventions of the epistolary form (address, signoff, highly personal voice) to control this welter of emotions.

Often, this led to comedy. A letter to A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh demonstrates an almost sadistic curiosity regarding the puffy little bear’s dressing habits (“I noticed that you’re wearing a shirt, not just into the pool anymore but all the time. You’ve changed. Are you embarrassed or something?”), and a short, sharp letter to Jay Gatsby chides him for his indiscriminate carousing (“Can I make a suggestion? Cancel the band. Turn off your lights. Lock your doors, for once”).

Not every submission resorted to humor. There is a pained, naïve challenge to Mearsault. There is a melancholy commiseration with Magnus Derrick. There is a lovely romantic overture, of a sort, to Eva, the doomed heroine of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” There’s a brief statement of brotherhood to Xuanzang, from the sixteenth-century Chinese epic Monkey. And there is a wonderfully desperate appeal to Nicholas Payne, from Tom McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano (one of my favorite books, and one I was inspired to reread as a result of the letter). As the site grows—since I started writing this post, we’ve received letters to Jesus, to Werther, to Ma Joad, to Dracula, to Seymour Glass, and to Dare Wright’s Lonely Doll—the individual cases begin to feed a larger consideration of the psychological process at work. What does it mean to address a fictional character directly, and to consider him or her independently of the author? Are people more honest writing when they write letters to fictional characters? Are these letters diaristic at one remove? Do the letters adopt the style of the work they’re writing to, or adopt a contrary style to establish independence? The project continues, so the answers to these questions will, I hope, come into sharper focus.

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the forthcoming What He’s Poised to Do. He lives in Brooklyn.


“Why in God’s name would I be on Facebook?”—Jonathan Lethem & David Gates on writing right now

For our new issue about writing as a form of correspondence, we asked several writers to exchange emails about being a writer at the present moment, about the public and the private aspects of the writing life, and, well, whatever else interested them.

Some of the correspondents—Claire Messud and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, for example—had never met, while others had known each other for years. In this latter category are Jonathan Lethem and David Gates, whose long friendship led to a frank and funny exchange that includes the line above. After Lethem asked Gates why he wasn’t on Facebook, Gates replied thusly, then quoted, with tongue no doubt in cheek, a famous exchange attributed to two earlier American writers:
“Henry, what are you doing in there?”
“Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
(This is supposedly what Ralph Waldo Emerson said to Thoreau during the latter’s prison stay chronicled in “On Civil Disobedience,” followed by Thoreau’s reported reply.)

The whole exchange between Lethem and Gates is a smart, searching, and witty back-and-forth about their experiences as writers, teachers—and readers. In Gates’s first email (just posted at PEN.org; more of the emails will appear throughout the week), he brings up David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, excerpted in PEN America 11: Make Believe and much discussed (you can even watch Shields talk about the book with Stephen Colbert):
It’s helped clarify for me why I can read so little fiction these days, and why I can’t stand most of what I’m now writing myself. It doesn’t, however, explain to me why fiction works for me when it works for me—not that this is an explanation I need.
Stay tuned for Lethem’s reply—or get the whole exchange now by ordering the issue.


Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah

Our new issue, Correspondences, tries to examine the ways all literature is a form of correspondence—letters from writers to readers, from writers to the world. It features a work of fiction by Lily Hoang based on a letter she found; an excerpt from Anne Carson’s new “book in a box,” made in part of old letters from her late brother; and Rick Moody’s reflections on “tweeting” a story (he reflects in 140-character segments, of course).

It also features a forum in which writers either compose a short letter to another writer (or a fictional character) or tell a story about their experience with one of the new technologies of correspondence (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

We’ve begun posting some of their pieces on PEN.org, and the latest to go up is a letter from Sam Lipsyte to Barry Hannah:
I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down. You sang, you startled, you dreamed, you mourned and exulted and laughed with new sounds, new sentences. Perhaps they bore the magic of the languages your character Ned Maximus (“thirty-eight and somewhat Spanish”) speaks: “white, Negro, some Elizabethan, some Apache.” And no matter how reckless your leaps, your sentences and your paragraphs, like tiny genius gymnasts, stuck every landing.
Read the whole thing. And write your own letter while you’re there. Oh, and buy the issue, too.

(The image above is a Barry Hannah manuscript, found here.)


Pushcart Prize for Hari Kunzru’s fiction from PEN America 10

“At the beginning of the Decadence it was easy. Although we were bored, and though everything had been done before, we were seized with a peculiar sense of potential. Our anomie had something optimistic to it. This was the golden age of our decline.”

So begins “Memories of the Decadence,” an older story by Hari Kunzru that we published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. Today we were alerted that Hari has won a Pushcart Prize for the piece, which will be included in the next Pushcart Prize anthology, to be published in November. Hari’s short fiction has been collected in the UK, but not in the United States—yet. Perhaps someone will decide to rectify that.

This is the second year in a row that a work of fiction from PEN America has been selected for the Pushcart anthology; last year, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s “Soap and Ambergis,” from PEN America 9: Checkpoints, was tapped for the honor.

So, congratulations to Hari. And more about our new issue, and the just completed World Voices Festival, soon.