“AWP and Me: A Meditation” by Richard Katrovas

by Director
The following essay is from a book the PSP program director Richard Katrovas is working on: Chained to a Tree: A Memoir in Essays about Poets and the Fools Who Love Them. About the essay he says: “The project is still fluid; that is, I’m still fiddling, fixing, still moving words, phrases, paragraphs around. My concern in the book is not so much American Poetry as American poets, people I’ve known through the years, some famous (in a poetry kind of way), some not. My larger concern is creative writing as a cottage industry within high education, though my deeper concern is the mysterious world of poets and writers, how they constitute an often ignoble tribe pursuing noble, if quixotic, ends. I’m discovering, in the twilight of my odd life and modest career, that the run of luck that has gotten me to this point has been nothing short of miraculous, and my consequent blessings manifold.” We share this recently-written piece in the spirit of the Prague Summer Program as an organization centered on the honesty and vulnerability of sharing work in progress.

AWP and Me: A Meditation

by Richard Katrovas

Groucho Marx’s famous, if most likely appropriated, one liner about club membership speaks to the part of me that fancies itself a writer. For example, I am a member of the Academy of American Poets and the Associated Writing Programs, and feel deep disdain for both organizations precisely because they stoop to have the likes of me as a member. Why do I pay dues? Why do I participate? Because not to would be to deny myself the healthiest, least painful opportunity for self-loathing, a condition I find necessary to maintaining my bona fides as a writer. If hell is other people, for me those folks are other writers, but only when we are bound together in any official capacity. There can be no such thing as an official poet, an official artist of any kind, and sanctioning organizations in the arts, be they academic or in any way government affiliated, even tangentially, are the bane of whatever temperate zone of the human spirit where Truth and Beauty cohabit in conjugal bliss. Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators are, more to the point, unofficial, and that quality is an existential value whose denial is a flagstone on the path to bad faith. However, though the human heart may be tainted by tax-exempt status, there are no pure motives in Heaven or on Earth, and no blossom should be shunned just because its roots are in shit. Far superior writers, far more courageous people than I have submitted their papers for official stamps of approval.

Arnošt Lustig survived the Holocaust because he was young, strong, lucky, and could perform manual labor exceedingly well. The last train he was forced upon was from Buchenwald—following his stint in Auschwitz—to Dachau where he was destined to perish from asphyxiation in a gas chamber; however, his doom was forestalled when an Allied plane bombed the engine. The bomber had probably mistaken the train for a troop transport. Arnošt and a friend escaped into the woods even as the others, the story goes, were machine gunned. Both boys made it back to Prague and joined the resistance.

This anecdote was the seed of Arnošt Lustig’s novel the English-language title for which was Darkness Casts No Shadow. In the novel, the boys are killed before they reach Prague. I once asked Arnošt, now dead for several years, why the boys in the novel die when in fact he and his friend lived. “Because they had to,” was all he answered.

Most of the German words I recognize I learned watching Hogan’s Heroes and movies about World War Two, but I know that “lustig” means “joy” and that no Czech misses the irony in the fact that one of its great Twentieth Century writers (and that such a small nation indeed produced several world-class writers is remarkable) wrote exclusively, for more than sixty years, about the Holocaust and happened to be one of the most joyful people on earth.

I’ve many stories about Arnošt Lustig because I was his boss, for nearly twenty years, for four weeks each summer, but to define the relation thus is misleading because Arnošt Lustig laughed off all authority and did pretty much what he wanted, which always far exceeded my expectations as the director of a study-abroad program for aspiring writers. On those rare occasions when I felt obliged to insist that he be here or there at a certain time, or suggest that he alter this or that aspect of how he taught his class, Arnošt would smile and change the subject or just ignore me. How does one “direct” a person who has occupied, not a metaphorical, but an earthly hell? How does one exert any kind of authority, no matter how well meaning and professionally administered, upon a Holocaust survivor?

There are many questions I wish I’d asked Arnošt. For example, I wish I’d asked him at what age he decided to become a writer. When he was in Auschwitz did he know that he wanted to become a writer? Well, there was no “becoming” in Auschwitz, but did he dream of a life after, and in that life was he a writer? Was such dreaming possible in Auschwitz?

From what I’ve read, and what I know about the heart, a boy could dream of a life after Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but at what point did the capacity to dream, to fantasize a life after all of that cease to be possible?  Did teenaged Arnošt fantasize a life after the camps even as he boarded that last train? Was the Allied bomber a dream come true?

One of the stories that Arnošt told often was of arriving at Auschwitz, after an extended period in the Nazi “show camp” Terezin, and being told to strip with the other prisoners, all older men. It was winter, and when the guards left that group of prisoners, of Jews, standing naked in the freezing air, the older men gathered tightly around the boy to keep themselves warm, but with the skinny boy at their center. Many of them no doubt had, or had had, children. That was what they could do, as fathers, in the moment.

Arnošt joined the Party, was a member of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, as were Milan Kundera and Ludvik Vaculik, indeed, as were most of the country’s writers. Publication depended upon one’s being a member. In the midst of the Prague Spring he became one of the strongest, most vocal critics of the Communist regime at the 1967 4th Writers Conference and gave up his membership in the Communist Party following the 1967 Middle East War. Soon after the Soviet invasion of his country in 1968, he bounced from Yugoslavia to Israel and finally to the U.S., where, after a year at the vaunted Iowa International Writers Workshop, he took a teaching gig at American University in D.C.; he taught there until his retirement in 2003, after which he once again became a more or less permanent resident of Prague.

I didn’t comprehend Arnošt’s stature within Czech society until one day in the early 2000’s I happened upon my second daughter, Annie, sitting before the TV but not paying much attention to the kids’ show that was in progress. Two hand puppets were chatting with a handsome, smiling white-haired old guy. “Annie, look, it’s Arnošt!” I said. She looked up from fabric she was destroying with round-edged scissors. “Oh, yeah. They’re talking about fairies,” she informed her father whom she knew could not fully follow even the baby Czech that Arnošt was exchanging with the puppets.

I often wonder what I would have done: 1. joined the government-sanctioned and therefore government-controlled Writers’ Union, 2. become an unabashed dissident, or 3. fled. There was certainly no dishonor in numbers two or three, particularly number two, but the first option was more problematic than is immediately obvious; some party-members, writers and not, indeed tried to work within the system to change it; Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” was the motto for such efforts that resulted, penultimately, in the Prague Spring, though ultimately in the Soviet invasion.

I can’t recall with much clarity the first time I attended the annual Associated Writing Programs conference. I’m fairly certain it was in the mid-Eighties and must have been a year when the convention was in New Orleans where I lived and worked at the local state university; I doubt I would have bothered back then to travel to another city to attend it. All that I can recall with certainty, without doing a little digging which I refuse to do, is that it was much, much smaller than it is now.

God Bless America for innumerable features of our pluralistic society, our dynamic culture, our vibrant if at times goofy democratic processes. God bless this country for the mechanisms by which it more often than not nurtures its better angels. God bless its idealism and especially its innovative spirit. I give this blessing with only a smidgen of irony, only a tad. I am thankful for my good life, my incredible New-Age, neo-hippie spouse, my Czech-American daughters, and a job I love more the longer I do it, a job that would have been unimaginable, say, the year I was born, 1953, only eight years after the end of the Second World War, and as armed conflict on the Korean peninsula ceased. Universities and colleges were still being fueled by the GI Bill, and television was experiencing its Golden Age, though I’ve never fully understood that characterization. It was the beginning of the Age of Mutually Assured Destruction, a characterization I do understand and which shaped the consciousness of a generation in ways that we’re probably only now beginning to comprehend. Creative Writing is but one of innumerable manifestations of nuclear dread, being a creature of counterculture, itself a pink mushroom cloud of hysterical affirmation of life’s essential value.

Repression occurs on an individual psychic level, but also in the body politic and generationally. I recall the Cuban Missile Crisis vividly, and I recall the terror that all sirens invoked. Most vividly, I recall sirens going off in Sasebo, Japan, just days after I’d arrived there, at the end of the summer of 1967, with my new family, two adults and three younger children I didn’t really know, how I lay in the dark on a cot, still jetlagged, and was certain that I would soon be vaporized. I can’t recall if I understood how near I was to Nagasaki, or even knew of the event that had seared the name of that city into modern consciousness. I understood that my stepfather, whom I’d met just three months earlier, was a navel officer whose new billet was as the skipper of a wooden-hulled minesweeper, the USS Phoebe, a tiny ship with which he would trace the treacherous coast of Vietnam. I lay on that cot, my muscles tensed, my eyes tightly squinted, awaiting the flash and heat as the sirens squealed upon the utterly foreign darkness. The next day no one spoke of the sirens, what they may have signaled, and they never again popped on over our three years in Sasebo.

The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented was perhaps a false dawn. The planet is no safer regarding the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction, and is a hell of a lot less safe in terms of the lockstep-march of Climate Change. And yet I intuit a diminution of terror even as we live now in what may reasonably be called the Age of Terror, a time of guerilla actions, suicide mass murders meant to unhinge the reigning order, however one may conceive it, by a thousand relatively tiny slashes. Life under a smoldering volcano is not conducive to long-term planning; the sense of an ending infuses each day, each moment, with giddy dread. As urgency shades to resignation, threats become as abstract as the sense of an ending propagated by popcorn movies flaunting apocalypse as ephemeral as spring fashion. The apocalyptic imagination, which is to say the capacity of any single mind to conjure an image of the volcano, the fount of doom, even as one averts eyes from it, is drained of alacrity and focus by the bastions of divine distraction, the saccharine puffs of silly hope we know as entertainment, art, religion.

Each year Krista and I attend the AWP convention. We purchase our little table, among many hundreds. We decorate it with Prague stuff, and sit for hours chatting with the same folks who stop by each year to catch up, and with some prospective students, though mostly with folks schmoozing to teach in the program, folks who, because they have to schmooze, are not qualified to teach in the program, bless their hearts. If we are lucky, one or two, maybe three good writers will attend our program after having talked to us about it at the Associated Writing Programs convention. Our participation is not particularly cost effective, but it has become a downbeat in the rhythm of our lives.

I am happy to be irrelevant, if relevancy entails the kinds of decisions that Arnošt and his friends faced regarding the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, and by extension, the Communist Party. I am a member of AWP, and if I quit it tomorrow the Democratic Party, of which I am also a member, would not likely be notified. Irrelevancy, even more so than ignorance, is bliss. The fact that I can make a living being irrelevant, and training others to be likewise, is a feather in the Yankee-doodle cap of the republic, an albeit lagging indicator of the glory of American Exceptionalism.

During the years that Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, Arnošt Lustig lived in an apartment in the Castle those weeks and months he was in Prague. Havel was his buddy, his old friend, and made sure that Arnošt had comfortable digs, free of charge, when in Prague. Havel had been in prison just months before the Velvet Revolution and his subsequent ascension to the presidency, a position that required him to reside in Prague Castle, a space he often seemed to consider simply a more opulent enclosure than the one to which the old regime had assigned him. Though Havel had never been a member of the Communist Party as Arnošt had, he’d been an albeit dyspeptic member of the Writers’ Union up until 1968, the year both he and Lustig, and many other writers, quit that sanctioning organization.

In America, the arts got gobbled up by colleges and universities at about the same time that behind the Iron Curtain the bifurcation of the arts between state-sanctioned and not was occurring. Under totalitarian conditions, such a bifurcation is always a reality, though the Prague Spring painted the distinguishing line darker and created conditions in which joining the dissenting team, the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters, did not ensure defeat, no matter the final score of any given encounter, considering that everyone knew the game was rigged. Being a high-profile dissident was often a cagy career move rewarded with translation into, and publication in, major languages and hero status in the West. Dissident status reverberated into the West and bounced back as an echo into the totalitarian state. Vaclav Havel and other diehard dissidents were not bulletproof, exactly, but they were at least waterproof; their voices could not be entirely drowned out by the marshal music and party-line rants of the regime. They were profoundly relevant, and that some of them were actually quite good writers was a kind of bonus. None had to submit to the scrutiny of tenure review, though constant surveillance and occasional incarceration were ordeals no less vexing to the creative spirit and, unlike tenure review, had no foreseeable end point. Was “official” status for writers, membership in the Writers’ Union, the moral equivalent of tenure? Were the signatories of Charter 77 staking out a moral high ground equivalent to writers, artists and intellectuals assuming status outside the academy?

The answers are “yes, but…” and “of course not.” The “but” simply acknowledges that, at bottom, it’s an apples/oranges comparison, and the simple fact is that totalitarian conditions render relevant any expression that is even implicitly critical of the reining order. Charter 77, whose two-hundred and forty-two original signers represented the cream of Czech culture, was a merely liberal document touting basic principles many of which even Stalin could have applauded in the abstract. The fact of its existence, not its content, was its oppositional authority.

A pluralistic society may dingdong back and forth between Left and Right extremes that, in broad historical terms, are anything but, which is not to say that it will never dislodge from its pendulum mooring. But as long as the pendulum remains firmly attached to its fixed point of what is variously named, but which we in America know as First Amendment rights, personal expression–the value of which is calculated within a market determined, usually, by the lowest common denominator of puerile, primitive taste, or by a cultural elite that is dubiously so—will be gloriously irrelevant.

The paradox, as I see it, is that the value of art, especially of literature, in a totalitarian system that touts the good of the many, centers on the individual artist, and in a pluralistic system that places a value on individual rights its value is in the aggregate, even cumulative, dare I say collective force of its presence in the midst, and perhaps in spite of, market forces.

When we arrive at whatever mammoth convention space that the lords of AWP have requisitioned, and set up our little table, we take turns walking the rows, scoping out where Wesleyan University Press or Carnegie Mellon University Press are displaying their wears this year. When it is my turn to roam, I pause here and there to say howdy to folks I see only for this one four-day stretch each year; we regulars have watched one another age, mellow. I learn that so-and-so has died or retired or simply said screw it. I marvel at how much time and effort some organizations, presses and writing programs, expend upon looking good at AWP, and, generally, I note how incredibly sincere, earnest, dedicated my fellow conventioneers seem. Everyone is a little bit on the make, as we say, and by Thursday and Friday, when the great halls are buzzing the loudest with literary ambition and a general love of books, of sitting alone and reading, and of stringing words together to compose verse or prose or some hybrid thereof in the hope that a few people will read those language constructs and think well of one for having taken the time to cobble them together, I am humbled.

When it is my turn to cease pushing my little program for a few minutes, Krista plies her considerable charms solo in my absence as I meander through the rows, avoiding eye contact with folks whose books I do not wish to purchase or whose programs have absolutely nothing to do with me, I wonder just how long this odd-duck, beautiful, humane and life-affirming system can continue. Is it a kind of Ponzi scheme? I doubt it, but I don’t know. On a fundamental level, in whatever Grand Scheme one is able to wrap one’s head around, what enterprise isn’t?

In the early 2000s I was once invited to participate in a literary festival in Singapore. They paid for my ticket, put me up in a very nice hotel, and gave me a handsome stipend. They asked me who among the Czech writers I knew they should also invite, and I told them Arnošt Lustig.

I was bowled over by the Singapore Literary Festival infrastructure, if not by the organizational acumen of its proprietors. I was impressed by the press and media coverage, and by how much money had had to go into putting on such an event, especially given that, as far as I could tell, the Festival seemed not to have a revenue stream.

They had invited me not because they were particularly interested in or much impressed by my numerous little books, but because they were intrigued, I think, by the study-abroad program I direct. They clearly wanted to pick my brain, which, given the severity of the jetlag between the American Midwest and southern Asia, was probably rather like picking mosquitos from the air with chopsticks.

Arnošt arrived with a fetching forty-something, a statuesque, strikingly pretty woman who, I seem to recall, was the vice-president of the Czech Goethe Society, or some such thing. She and Arnošt smooched unabashedly, usually sitting in the front rows at readings and presentations, packed on the PDA, as the gossip mags now characterize such behavior, the entire three-day program. Arnošt had somehow talked the organizers into paying for his friend’s ticket, and then proceeded pretty much to ignore all of the festival’s sincere attempts to celebrate and promote Anglophone Asian literature, opting rather to love up, publicly and gloriously, a beautiful, and I was to learn extremely bright and cultured, Goethe-loving fellow Czech.

The organizers of the festival were furious at me for recommending that they invite Arnošt Lustig, until it was his turn to talk about his work, talk about his life, or I should say his life up until he was eighteen, because for sixty years he wrote almost exclusively about that boy whose skinny, naked body had been kept from freezing by the naked bodies of old men, who had known starvation, who had seen more death and misery than any human being should ever witness, and who escaped by the sheerest luck from a death train. One could not be in Arnošt Lustig’s presence and not eventually understand that he had died and been reborn, or that he should have died and simply didn’t, and that he felt every minute of his life since escaping into those woods to be an undeserved blessing, and that to live simultaneously in the hell of his boyhood and the relative comfort of his life after was a radical yet easy decision. Life after was friendships, family, a sense of belonging to something beautiful and good, even if it turned to shit. It was unfettered erotic play and opportunities to act on principles. It was conflicts in which he engaged and conflicts he ignored or laughed off. It was living in the midst of absurdities and calling them such. It was the melancholy he expressed when recounting his enthusiastic embrace of Communism so soon after emerging from the woods, reentering Prague, and joining the resistance.

Once, in the late 90s in Prague, he and I were waiting for colleagues to arrive for dinner. We gossiped a little, joked around. There was a moment of quiet as I checked my watch and he stared out the restaurant window. He sighed and said, as wistfully as I’d ever heard him speak, and apropos of nothing about which we’d been chatting, “They fucked up a beautiful idea for a hundred years.”

I knew what he meant, and that evening as he and I and our colleagues, mostly American poets and novelists and their significant others, dined on hearty Czech fare, and the wine flowed and wit was unleashed and laughter rang out, Vera, Arnošt’s wife, also a survivor, berated him loudly and mercilessly, joking even about his manhood. Arnošt laughed with her and at himself, and when she castigated him for his numerous affairs he continued to laugh sheepishly as the rest of the group roared, for the roasting she gave him was full of love, and he deserved it and took it like a mensch, of course. He was with her when she passed, in Prague, more than a decade later, and he passed very soon after.

Mao Tse-tung, responsible for the deaths of many millions, fancied himself a poet. The Rogue’s Row of other literary artists, from Francois Villon to Richard Savage, is quaint by comparison, but the fact that bad people can make beautiful, at least vaguely interesting, literary stuff is indisputable. However, though I know that poets and writers can be incredibly petty, vain, self-deluded, cowardly and passive-aggressive (especially that) none has registered, thus far, upon my regard as possessing an ugly heart; I’ve met none that I thought enjoyed the physical or emotional pain of others. Even my worst enemies, as loathsome as I may judge them in my little world, have not seemed ugly-hearted, have not seemed the sort who would murder or defile, have not seemed sadistically inhumane, at least not in the sense that drug-cartel henchmen, neo-Nazis, and right-wing politicians usually are.

Creative writers–terrible and brilliant, idiotic and transcendent, famous and anonymous, principled and unscrupulous, visionary and myopic, profound and profoundly mediocre—despite the pending death of literature as we know it and the ascendance of virtual realities and other heretofore unimaginable extensions and augmentations of the imagination, are charmed, special, oddly indispensable, whether organized or not.