A Fable for Our Time

You, Beast by poet Nick Lantz is a new collection published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press. Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and published in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, You Beast includes poems ranging from found text to villanelles and from short plays to fables. In this guest blog post, Lantz offers us a fable for our time.

Let me begin with a fable:

The old rabbit was a learned animal who prided himself on being very fair, and the other animals looked to him for guidance. One day, a mouse came to see him.
“I was almost eaten by a wolf,” said the mouse. “I am very small and no one will listen to me, but if you tell the other animals that the wolf is dangerous, they will band together and drive that monster from the forest.”
“Oh, but I can’t take sides,” said the rabbit. “The wolf is also a citizen of the forest, and to be fair I must treat all citizens with respect, and it is disrespectful to call the wolf a monster. Do you see?” The disappointed mouse nodded and went on his way, and that night, the wolf ate him. The next morning, a badger came to see the rabbit.

“The Frogs Who Desired a King” Illustrated by Milo Winter

“I saw that vile wolf eat the mouse,” said the badger. “You must tell the other animals that he is a villain.”
“It won’t do,” said the rabbit, “to go around calling people names. I can’t take sides. It is only fair that I remain impartial.” The badger was angry but went away, and that night, the wolf ate him.
The next day, the rabbit was walking through the forest when the wolf jumped from the brambles and fell upon him. As the wolf caught him by the neck, the rabbit cried out: “What are you doing? I was fair. I never took sides against you!”
“What do I care?” said the wolf. “I am hungry.” Then the wolf swallowed the rabbit, whose fairness earned him nothing.

When I was writing You, Beast, I kept returning to fables, particularly those involving animals. A good fable has tremendous compactness and rhetorical force. In that sense, it’s like a well-crafted syllogism, or a poem. Many fables are political in nature, but by stripping away the sociocultural particulars of a situation, their lessons become harder to refute.

This is actually the second draft of my post for the UW Press blog. In my original draft, I drew a connection between one of the poems in You, Beast and some aspects of the current political landscape. If that sounds a bit vague, here’s why: the Press told me that because of their affiliation with a public, state university, they could not publish something on the Press’ blog that overtly endorsed or (in my case) condemned a particular political party or politician. So, obviously, the Press is the rabbit in my fable, but I don’t mean to let myself off the hook by claiming I’m the truth-telling mouse, just trying to be heard. The fact is, I’m the rabbit too. I’m a professor at another public, state university, and in that capacity, I strive to be a teacher for all of my students, regardless of their political affiliations. But as a poet, I often wonder about the costs of that vision of fairness, about truths I don’t give voice to in its name. The Press’s decision not to publish my original post bothered me because I make similar decisions in my own speech and conduct on a daily basis. And I’m worried that my restraint won’t mean a thing to the wolves who want to gobble us up.

Nick Lantz is the author of The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, and How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. He is the editor of the Texas Review, co-curator of thecloudyhouse.com, and an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He has been a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an Emerging Writer Fellow at Gettysburg College.

Mother City, muse of poets

Judith Vollmer, author of The Apollonia Poems, reflects on writing poems while concentrating on place—city in particular—as a lens to perceive and listen to spaces and the people inside them. Vollmer’s new book is published this week in the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series and is the winner of the 2016 Four Lakes Prize.

To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong?

                                                                —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

The plate glass window facing the street shimmered opalescent blue earlier this morning. Now the glass shifts and resumes the scratched-pearl gray our Pittsburgh sky customarily displays, steady, our mid-Atlantic temperate-zone nerve system holding its own in all seasons. I come here to read, mostly, and write in my notebooks at a quiet table with a hot Americano en route to its second refill. The café is standard issue: black and white tile, no-frills countertop and tables, bright bulbs in every wall lamp: sit, here, uninterrupted with a good book.

Glass with laser pattern

Tiny cousin to Rome, whose centro storico is nearly identical in size and population to ours, my city accumulates and shows off layers equally breathtaking and ruined; writing over and etching onto stories and designs with every emerging generation. Apollonia, literal and apocryphal ancestor and muse, is both woman and city, saint and destroyer, arrived from the ancient worlds of the Mediterranean and of Eastern Europe; she is a singer of women’s songs and lost stories, and lives on in my Pittsburgh. She is my harsh teacher and eternal mother—if my city is, in fact, female, and I sense she is. Through this lens and container of culture, I can see outward and listen in on voices familial, neighbored, or new and accented with a language I don’t know. When I walk to and back home from this table, I too am incised with the complexities of our small radius: both Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs praised Pittsburgh’s ideal scale as that of a “human city.” I see, daily, our harshly cut and carved class/race zones, smack up against freshly made green pockets; hipster-chef entrepreneur-immigrants happy with our rents and plentiful local farms; the homesteads of Rachel Carson and of August Wilson; and the in-plain-sight beauty of three rivers and the crooked street-mazes rimming them.

Ancient Apollonia

Daily I’m aware of this place whose indigenous peoples hunted, fished, and settled here more than 5,000 years ago; time’s arc stretched far to the blood-labor workers who built the steel empire in the nineteenth century and whose children were bankrupted when steel left. I sit and listen for another way into the next poem and wander Apollonia’s visions of Palmyra, Sozopol, Chaco, and Rzeszow, of countless other containers not so different from this one.

 

Judith Vollmer is the author of the award-winning poetry collections Level Green, The Door Open to the Fire, Black Butterfly, Reactor, and The Water Books. She teaches in the MFA Program in Poetry & Poetry in Translation at Drew University and has been an artist in residence at Yaddo and a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.

The Mostly Nearly Entirely Excited States of American English

Charles Hood, author of Partially Excited States, explains the double meaning behind his title and explores a variety of curious phrases in the English language. His book is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, and is the winner of the 2016 Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. 

Somebody at Yale once asked John Ashbery about his relationship to the English language. One wishes to be polite, but come on now—really? All of your work to all of language? It would be impossible for any of us to answer that, but most especially somebody whose artistic register spans every octave from Abstract Expressionism to parking tickets.

Ashbery said oh no, there must be some confusion. He didn’t work in the English language but in American English, and that included the English language within it. (And saying that, he slipped off to freshen his drink.)

It seems to me American English is like an enormous tiger shark, a monster fish whose gullet contains toasters, clocks, two-by-fours, other sharks, pieces of surfboard, half of a suit of armor. One thing about American English: nobody can accuse us of being all hat and no ranch. Macabre pictures gave Huck Finn the fantods; Mr. Twain also preserved for us galoot, palaver, and forty-rod (rotgut whisky). New words arrive daily: clickbait provides a pleasing spondee in the mouth, but I like older, folksier terms, like whisky jack for gray jay.

Sec. Jardine and Mr. & Mrs. Tom Mix, May 21, 1925. National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

“Hey guys, wait up,” can be a girl pleading with girls as easily as it is gents razzing gents. Dude is equally inclusive: it used to mean a poor surfer, a term extrapolated from dude ranch, whose label came from the Scots for posh clothing, duds. Whatever happened to pen pals? Gumshoes used to get a hinky feeling about a john’s alibi. I’ll sit through hours of late-night noir just to watch people smoke and to listen to them call each other pal, buddy, and doll. Just once I want to start a poem by warning, “Watch it, buster.”

Do you call it a crayfish or a crawdad? Same creek-bottom bug-lobster, but names change by region. The poet Jonathan Williams loved documenting the language of Appalachia. Right before I retire (once it’s too late to get fired), I’ll quote him often, saying of one colleague in particular, “There’s more mouth on that woman than ass on a goose.”

Know Your USA

In my new book, I play with this heritage. The cover photo was taken on a cross-country road trip and the title Partially Excited States I borrowed from material science. Articles in that discipline worry about the “applicability of Kohn–Sham density functional theory.” A sham theory? I’m loving it. But states can mean states of being (when you’re nearly interested, yet not quite) and of course I also mean the fifty U.S. states, all of which I’ve visited at least once. Somebody in a hurry is a highballer; in logging, a high climber is the person who tops a spar tree and hangs the butt rigging. American logging also gives us skidders and peaveys (tools), calks (boots), and slash as a noun—not the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, but piles of leftover branches.

Two people divided by a common language: my California English differs from that of my wife’s family in rural Pennsylvania—“davenport royalty” as I call them in the book—the people who warned me that “to prepare peaches for canning, / first you must scold them.” In hunting, a Texas heart shot means to shoot an animal from behind, through the anus, thus keeping the pelt intact for taxidermy. (Irish karate? To kick a lad after he’s already down.) Some day I want to publish my still-in-progress poem that celebrates aviation slang: to bingo—to abort, be diverted. At the bar, “Let’s bingo.” Judy: target in sight, locked on, got it.

My students mistakenly believe that present times are especially slangy, as if our great-grandparents didn’t get rat-assed, blotto, plowed, or cabbaged. They also expect me to be snobby about “bad” English. No way, brave dudes and dudettes. Best reason to want to live to be 100? Just to find out what our hep cat language plans to do next.

Charles Hood is a writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, a photographer, and an artist. His many books include Mouth; South x South; Río de Dios: 13 Histories of the Los Angeles River; The Half-Life of Salt: Voices of the Enola Gay; and Red Sky, Red Water: Powell on the Colorado. A longtime animal spotter, he has seen more than six hundred mammal species and more than five thousand species of wild birds. In his global travels, he has trekked to the South Pole, been lost in a Tibetan whiteout, and recovered from bubonic plague.

New publications, March 2017

We are pleased to announce five new books to be published in March.

March 7, 2017
PARTIALLY EXCITED STATES
Charles Hood

“Simultaneously dazzling, playful, witty, goofy, hilarious, and profound, Partially Excited States carries us through our past into the present and even into our future somewhere in outer space. This is a mature book that manages to be idiosyncratic in its thinking but universal in its concerns.”
—Susan Mitchell

“These poems give us reality entire, ablaze with fires at once heavenly and infernal. This is a poet whose ecstasy and despair present two sides of the same blade, sharpened on a grim and gorgeous world.”
—Katharine Coles

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 7, 2017
YOU, BEAST
Nick Lantz

“Lantz gives us what we could least have anticipated, then makes it seem the most natural thing in the world.”
—John Burnside

“Poem by poem, book by book, Nick Lantz is becoming one of our time’s best poets. He knows the blades and shrieks and pleasures and sweet sick twists in our human hearts, and this bestiary forces us to look, hard and long, in our own mirrors. ‘Polar Bear Attacks Woman … Horrifying Vid (Click to Watch)’ is a poem for this moment in the way Auden and Yeats and Rich and Dickey and Komunyakaa gave us poems for their moments.”
—Albert Goldbarth

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 7, 2017
THE APOLLONIA POEMS
Judith Vollmer

Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry

“This book is a trip, or many trips. Here is the creative mind at work and play—its geological layers uncovered, lifetimes and cultures revisited, offered to us in Judith Vollmer’s characteristic voice: curious, tender, and flinty, with its own grave and ethereal music.”
—Alicia Ostriker

“Judith Vollmer’s dwelling-in-traveling poems follow the ‘salt-sweet restless soul’ into labyrinths of mirrors, walls, shrouds, veils, membranes, through portals sussurant with transatlantic chants, through a palimpsest of echoes caught in the undersong of women suffering over the quickness of life.”
—Mihaela Moscaliuc

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 14, 2017
THE BLIND MASSEUSE
A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia
Alden Jones

New in Paperback

  • Finalist, Travel Book or Guide Award, North American Travel Journalists Association
    Gold Medal for Travel Essays, Independent Publisher Book Awards
    Gold Medal, Travel Essays, ForeWord’s IndieFab Book of the Year
    Winner, Memoir/Biography, Bisexual Book Award
    Longlist of eight, PEN/Diamonstein Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
    Finalist, Nonfiction, Housatonic Book Award

“It’s smart and thoughtful, but also Jones is cackle-for-days hilarious and the book is a page-turner from second one, when she’s out walking in the dark in her village and bumps into a cow. Please, everyone, read this book!”
Huffington Post

“Wise, witty, and well traveled, Alden Jones has given us a beautifully written book that honors the wandering spirit in all of us. Take this journey with her and return newly alive to the pleasure of moving through the world.”
—Ana Menéndez, author of Adios, Happy Homeland!

March 14, 2017
UNDERSTANDING AND TEACHING U.S. GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER HISTORY

Edited by Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman

  • Best Special Interest Books, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
    Best Special Interest Books, selected by the Public Library Reviewers
    Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Anthology
    A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

“An excellent and sturdy resource that offers high school and college teachers an entry point into LGBT history. . . . Contributors deftly tie LGBT content to the broader goals of teaching history, not simply making visible the lives of everyday queer people but prompting critical engagement.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Groundbreaking and readable. . . . Essential for college and university libraries supporting teacher training degree programs and curricula in American history, LGBT studies, and the social sciences. Essential, undergraduates and above; general readers.”
Choice

The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History
John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

 

 

Goodnight, Beloved Comrade

Murtaugh-Good-Night-Beloved-Comrade-c

This week, the University of Wisconsin Press publishes Good Night, Beloved Comrade: The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh.  

Denton Welch

Denton Welch

Denton Welch (1915–48) died at the age of thirty-three after a brief but brilliant career as a writer and painter. He published four novels published between 1943 and 1950: Maiden Voyage, In Youth Is Pleasure, Brave and Cruel, and A Voice through Cloud, as well as a large body of short fiction and poetry.The revealing, poignant, impressionistic voice that buoys his novels was much praised by critics and literati in England and has since inspired creative artists from William S. Burroughs to John Waters. His achievements were all the more remarkable because he suffered from debilitating spinal and pelvic injuries incurred in a bicycle accident at age eighteen.

Though German bombs were ravaging Britain, Welch wrote in his published work about the idyllic landscapes and local people he observed in Kent. There, in 1943, he met and fell in love with Eric Oliver, a handsome, intelligent, but rather insecure “landboy”—an agricultural worker with the wartime Land Army. Oliver would become a companion, comrade, lover, and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. All fifty-one letters that Welch wrote to Oliver are collected and annotated here for the first time.

Daniel Murtaugh, editor of Goodnight, Beloved Comrade, shares in the following post how he’s experienced a companionship that mirrors that of Welch and Oliver.

I made my first trip to Austin, Texas, during the summer of 1996 to locate and transcribe the correspondence of Denton Welch, partially funded by a small research stipend and a University of Kansas Endowment loan. The Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Te

The Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center

xas held Welch’s original holographic letters purchased in the 1960s from Eric Oliver, Welch’s companion. My book originated from the work I did during this visit.

As it happened, Ned, one of my closest friends from Lawrence, Kansas, had moved to Austin a couple of years prior and was working for a rare book and manuscript restoration business. Though I knew I would be spending most of my daytime hours in research, I made plans to get together with my friend during the evenings.

Martha Campbell in front of her bed and breakfast

Martha Campbell in front of her bed and breakfast

Ned picked me up at the Austin airport and took me to the bed and breakfast run by Martha Campbell in the Hyde Park area of Austin. Martha had lost her husband and had converted her home into a lovely and relaxing oasis for visiting scholars at the University of Texas. My digs were a series of light-filled rooms where I immediately felt at home.

Martha is a well-read and feisty Texas woman, much like her idols Governor Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, and we had many lively political and literary discussions during my time in her home.

Some of my most memorable moments at Ms. Campbell’s were those sitting on her porcgeckoh, after dark, reading or mentally rehearsing my findings from the Denton Welch Collection at the Ransom Center. I was quite used to the deafening droning of cicadas as evening fell, but not to geckos. I was amazed and delighted to see several of these tiny lizards clinging adhesively to the porch walls, then darting after any mosquitos or other insects coming into the danger zone. I half expected one of these creatures to leap onto my shoulders in hot pursuit of its nocturnal quarry, but it never happened.

Congress Street bats

Congress Street bats

While I am still within a darting tongue’s distance of the subject of insect control, I might mention that one evening—just at dusk—Ned and I went to the Congress Street bridge in downtown Austin, under which thousands of bats make their homes. As we sat on the bank of the Colorado River, we heard a deafening squeaking and whirring, preceding waves of bats winging and pirouetting their way down the river channel in search of mosquitos. It should come as no surprise that this natural phenomenon has become one of the “must-sees” for visitors to the city.

Barton Springs

Barton Springs

Ned and I spent a lot of time together, bicycling to Barton Springs (for relief from the intense south Texas heat), along the numerous bike paths on the banks of the Colorado, and finally climbing the cliffs above Lake Travis for an exhilarating view of the Texas hill country. On my last Saturday in Austin, we took a hike among some rocky outcroppings near the river. When I stopped for a rest, I  naively sat down cross-legged on the ground; it didn’t take long for me to realize that fire ants (which one is unlikely to encounter north of the Red River) were advancing in platoons up my legs, apparently intending to bivoufire antac somewhere inside my shorts. Before I could mount a counterattack, I learned to my chagrin—and to Ned’s amusement—the reason they were given the name “fire” ants.

Lake Travis

Lake Travis

In all the time we spent together in Austin, I hadn’t realized how like Ned was in appearance and nature to the writer whose letters I was reading and copying at the Ransom Center. Both wore round, wire-rim glasses, both had a mass of curly hair, and both were intensely attuned to the minutiae of the world around them. Many years later, I recognize that Denton Welch’s sometimes frustrating relationship with Eric Oliver—particularly related to their difficulties in the mutual expression of intimacy—in many ways mirrored my continuing friendship and love for Ned, which had begun in Lawrence several years prior to my trip. Among the things that Denton and Eric enjoyed most were their hikes and bicycling trips around the English countryside, the same types of things Ned and I cherished most during my visit to Austin and in my previous experiences with him.

Also, like Denton for Eric, I long ago realized that Ned is one of my soulmates, but also like the writer and his companion, our connection can never be fully and mutually shared; there are barriers. However, no one will ever share in the same way my sense of wonderment in and bewilderment by our world (including geckos, bats, and fire ants) better than Ned.

Daniel J. Murtaugh

Daniel J. Murtaugh

Daniel J. Murtaugh teaches literature and history at Park University and at Johnson County Community College. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Good Night, Beloved Comrade is published in the UWP books series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographiesedited by David Bergman, Joan Larkin, and Raphael Kadushin.

New publications, February 2017

Murtaugh-Good-Night-Beloved-Comrade-c

We are pleased to announce two new books to be published in February.

February 7, 2017
GOOD NIGHT, BELOVED COMRADE
The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver
Edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh

Denton Welch (1915–48) died at the age of thirty-three after a brief but brilliant career as a writer and painter. The revealing, poignant, impressionistic voice that buoys his novels was much praised by critics and literati in England and has since inspired creative artists from William S. Burroughs to John Waters. His achievements were all the more remarkable because he suffered from debilitating spinal and pelvic injuries incurred in a bicycle accident at age eighteen.

Though German bombs were ravaging Britain, Welch wrote in his published work about the idyllic landscapes and local people he observed in Kent. There, in 1943, he met and fell in love with Eric Oliver, a handsome, intelligent, but rather insecure “landboy”—an agricultural worker with the wartime Land Army. Oliver would become a companion, comrade, lover, and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. All fifty-one letters that Welch wrote to Oliver are collected and annotated here for the first time. They offer a historical record of life amidst the hardship, deprivation, and fear of World War II and are a timeless testament of one young man’s tender and intimate emotions, his immense courage in adversity, and his continual struggle for love and creative existence.

Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies
David Bergman, Joan Larkin, and Raphael Kadushin, Series Editors

 

February 21
OF BEGGARS AND BUDDHASBowie-Of-Beggars-and-Buddhas-c
The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand
Katherine A. Bowie

An exploration of the subversive politics of humor in the most important story in Theravada Buddhism

The 547 Buddhist jatakas, or verse parables, recount the Buddha’s lives in previous incarnations. In his penultimate and most famous incarnation, he appears as the Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity by giving away all his possessions, his wife, and his children to the beggar Jujaka. Taking an anthropological approach to this two-thousand-year-old morality tale, Katherine A. Bowie highlights significant local variations in its interpretations and public performances across three regions of Thailand over 150 years.

The Vessantara Jataka has served both monastic and royal interests, encouraging parents to give their sons to religious orders and intimating that kings are future Buddhas. But, as Bowie shows, characterizations of the beggar Jujaka in various regions and eras have also brought ribald humor and sly antiroyalist themes to the story. Historically, these subversive performances appealed to popular audiences even as they worried the conservative Bangkok court. The monarchy sporadically sought to suppress the comedic recitations. As Thailand has changed from a feudal to a capitalist society, this famous story about giving away possessions is paradoxically being employed to promote tourism and wealth.

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, Thongchai Winichakul, I. G. Baird, Katherine Bowie, and Anne Ruth Hansen, Series Editors

 

 

 

Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era

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Law professor Michael O’Hear has just published his new book with us this week: Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era. We spoke with him about his findings on this timely subject.

A lot has been written in the popular and academic press about mass incarceration, as the number of Americans in prison has increased tremendously since the 1970s. What does your book add?

Most writing on mass incarceration deals with the subject as a generalized national phenomenon. However, the vast majority of American prisoners—about seven in eight—are held in state institutions after being sentenced in state courts under state laws. Really, it is state-level policies and practices that have driven the unprecedented imprisonment boom that we have seen in the U.S. over the past four decades. This helps to explain why mass incarceration has hit some states a lot harder than others. Yet, there are very few studies that explore the experience of particular states in depth. We will not have the full story of mass incarceration in America until state experiences are better understood.

My book covers the historical development of sentencing policy in Wisconsin over a period of more than forty years. Only a handful of other states have been studied in a comparable fashion. I hope to enrich the literature by putting another state that has had a distinctive experience under the microscope. Of course, I think my book will also hold a special appeal for Wisconsinites who are interested in better understanding and possibly reforming penal practices in their own state.

How hard did mass incarceration hit Wisconsin?

In some respects, the Wisconsin experience has been representative of the overall national experience. As with most other states, Wisconsin’s prison population rose sharply in the last quarter of the twentieth century and remains today near its all-time high. At present, the prison population amounts to about 377 out of every 100,000 state residents. This figure is not far off the national average of 402 state prisoners out of every 100,000 U.S. residents.

However, Wisconsin’s numbers do stand out in at least two ways. First, the state’s prison population grew remarkably quickly, even by national standards. In the early 1970’s, Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate was only about half the national average. In essence, Wisconsin went from being a low-imprisonment state forty years ago to a middle-of-the-pack state today. Second, mass incarceration hit Wisconsin’s African American community in an especially dramatic and disheartening way. By some measures, Wisconsin may have the nation’s very highest rate of black male incarceration. In some neighborhoods in Milwaukee, in particular, imprisonment has become a routine and expected part of the life experience of young men of color.

What caused Wisconsin’s prison population to grow so quickly?behind bars

Let me first address two common errors about mass incarceration. I’ve heard these stories often from commentators both locally and nationally, but the Wisconsin experience does a good job of highlighting the problems with these accounts. First, many people think that mass incarceration was caused by the “war on drugs.” It is true that the imprisonment boom, at both the state and national level, coincided with a toughening of drug laws and a sharp increase in drug arrests. However, the vast majority of arrests have been for low-level offenses, like simple possession of marijuana, and the offenders have tended to cycle in and out of the criminal-justice system relatively quickly. Thus, in Wisconsin, the portion of the prison population serving time for drug offenses topped out at about 15 percent, and has since dropped to below 10 percent. The national numbers are a little higher, but the fact remains that mass incarceration would still exist even if every drug offender were released from prison tomorrow.

Second, it is often said that mass incarceration resulted from the adoption of mandatory minimums and other laws that took away the discretion of sentencing judges. It is true that Wisconsin, like many other states, adopted a host of new statutory minimums in the 1980s and 1990s. However, upon closer inspection, the minimums are revealed for what they really were—largely symbolic enactments that vented public frustration over crime without actually doing much to pump up the prison population. Minimums were relatively short, or narrowly targeted, or included safety valves that permitted judges to avoid them. In some states, like California, discretion was much more dramatically curtailed. However, the Wisconsin story demonstrates that mass incarceration happened without aggressive changes in sentencing law.

In Wisconsin, the prison population initially exploded because crime exploded, and because judges and prosecutors lacked confidence in the ability of the Department of Corrections to manage the rising tide of offenders effectively in the community. But then, even when crime stabilized in the 1990s, the prison population continued to grow, as indicated in the figure below. Sentences were becoming more severe, reflecting the entrenchment of tough-on-crime attitudes among criminal-justice officials. (In Wisconsin, as in most states, judges and district attorneys are elected, which makes it perilous for these key local officials to appear overly lenient.) For a few years, generous parole practices partly counterbalanced tougher sentences, but parole grew politicized in the mid-1990s and was effectively phased out. The formal elimination of parole through “truth in sentencing” helped to ensure that Wisconsin’s prison population would remain near its all-time high on a sustained basis.

Figure: Wisconsin Prisoners and Arrests for Violent Crime

Figure: Wisconsin Prisoners and Arrests for Violent Crime

Why should we care about the state or national imprisonment rate?

Commentators have been calling for large-scale decarceration in the United States for years. The numbers-crunchers tell us that that this could likely be accomplished with little or no adverse impact on public safety. The historical experiences of Wisconsin and Minnesota offer a telling comparison. The two states had similar crime and imprisonment rates in the early 1970s. Since then, Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate has grown far more quickly than Minnesota’s, but the crime rates have remained closely in sync.

In recent years, the opponents of mass incarceration have particularly emphasized the fiscal burdens of imprisonment. It is true that corrections expenses are stressing state budgets in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Local taxpayers are now paying more for corrections than they are for the University of Wisconsin, which hardly seems an ideal way to prioritize public expenditures. Still, I am skeptical that appeals to fiscal restraint alone will inspire much decarceration. Fear of crime remains widespread, and people resist thinking about crime policy in terms of dollars and cents; the stakes just seem too high.barbed wire

Reformers need to make the case that new sentencing policies would not only save money, but actually make us safer. Accumulating bodies of evidence show that imprisonment can make some offenders more likely to reoffend, while some types of community-based rehabilitative programming can significantly reduce risks of recidivism. However, I argue in my book that real reform likely requires more than just a good public education campaign.

Ultimately, as a society, we must move beyond the reflexive vilification of offenders and recognize their shared humanity. They are not just criminals, but also parents, children, spouses, neighbors, friends, and employees, and many desperately want to do something positive with their lives. Moreover, most come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have faced extraordinary adversity growing up, which ought to inspire at least a little compassion. If we care about the well-being of prisoners, and the well-being of those on the outside who are connected to them, then we should care very deeply about the excessive use of imprisonment that is reflected in the mass-incarceration numbers. This is not to say that we should empty out the prisons tomorrow. Saint Augustine taught us to hate the sin, but love the sinner. If we were really to take that teaching to heart, we would find ways to protect public safety and hold offenders accountable, but without doing so much unnecessary damage to so many human lives along the way.

Michael OMichael O'Hear‘Hear is a professor of law at Marquette University. He is an editor of the journal Federal Sentencing Reporter and has published many articles on sentencing law, criminal procedure, and public opinion about the criminal justice system.

 

Michael O’Hear

Autobiographical Confession in Pop Culture

Megan Brown is the author of American Autobiography after 9/11, published this week. She reflects in this post on contemporary examples of the performative aspect of confession and how we have come to expect that as an audience. Brown is an associate professor of English at Drake University, and her new book is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography

I need to confess something here: I am an avid fan of the kinds of pop culture that many in my field readily disparage. Yes, I’ll crank up the car radio volume if “Bad Blood” comes on, and yes, I like to cackle about episodes of the various Bachelor franchises with my friends, and yes, I’ll probably keep doing these things even as Taylor Swift songs and reality television shows become more predictable and repetitive over the years. Indeed, the predictability and the repetition are the very things that I find not only appealing, but also fascinating. Some viewers and listeners might find the familiar tropes—insisting on being at the week’s rose ceremony for the “right reasons” or dissing unfaithful men in uptempo C major—comforting in an uncertain world, but I find them strange. They are shorthand, performative gestures toward confession that blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction by manipulating and satisfying audience expectations. As Michel Foucault reminds us, audience is central to the workings of confession—as he writes in The History of Sexuality, “one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession.” The confessor is expected and compelled to follow tropes of confessional narrative, and listeners will respond—often with credulity—according to the confessor’s level of fidelity to that narrative.

Let me explain further by turning first to Taylor Swift’s 1989, featuring the singles “Style,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and the aforementioned “Bad Blood.” As these songs and their videos became popular, writers in music magazines and on social media alike focused on one factor above all: the lyrics. Billboard dished on 1989’s references to Swift’s ex, Harry Styles of One Direction fame. The Washington Post offered an extended analysis of “Bad Blood,” using quotations and screenshots of fans’ Facebook posts and tweets to suggest that the song was intended as a takedown of Swift’s fellow pop diva, Katy Perry. Questions swirled as listeners tried to map the singles’ lyrics onto the singer’s life. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Swift—consider, for instance, the summer 2016 arguments about the “real” identity of Beyonce’s “Becky with the Good Hair.” Why, though, would anyone assume that song lyrics are autobiographical? Why would we assume that “Becky” is a real, identifiable person, and that Beyonce’s Lemonade is her account of struggles in her marriage to Jay Z? Can’t a popular performer sing from the point of view of a fictional persona, or write songs about fictional characters? In interviews, Swift coyly drops hints about life events that inspired her songs, but—more importantly, in my view—listeners assume autobiographical narrative in her lyrics because she performs “what confession sounds like” in contemporary memoir. Her songs come from a first-person perspective, and they signal authentic vulnerability by presenting a flawed narrator (the girl who “goes on too many dates but can’t make them stay,” as “Shake It Off” proclaims) with less-than-pretty emotions.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Think, too, about the confessional imperative—the idea that Swift “keeps it real” is central to her appeal. Firmly ensconced in celebrity culture, she is always expected to write about her love life, to keep the conversation and speculation going, even if the songs become formulaic. While her audience is not “requiring” the confessions in the way envisioned by Foucault, her continued relevance may well depend on meeting listener/viewer expectations for autobiographical narrative. Her songs, and the items about her in gossip columns, feed each other in a symbiotic relationship that may assure her career longevity. (Or, at least, assure her ongoing notoriety—it’s interesting that her controversial 2016 dispute with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West is again about “autobiographical” lyrics, this time in West’s “Famous.”)

If we turn to the example of reality TV, we can see how the performed confessional—again, the outward signs of authentic vulnerability—becomes crucial to contestants’ longevity or popularity on a show. Summer 2016 brought the twelfth installment of The Bachelorette, and the most recent Bachelor in early 2016 was the twentieth season of that series. In both of these iterations of

ABC.com

ABC.com

the reality franchise, the contestants receiving the most screen time spent much of that time confessing their feelings and telling stories about their pasts. Maybe these contestants were coached by show producers or by viewings of past seasons, but they seemed to know how to perform; one front-runner, Robby Hayes, was the first to tell the titular Bachelorette, JoJo Fletcher, that he loved her, and he led up to his confession of love by telling a dramatic part of his life story: “I came here [to be on The Bachelorette] because of huge changes I made in my life. Last year, on April 17, my best friend from growing up died. . . . It made me realize that if I’m not happy in the job I’m in, I’m not happy in the city I’m in, and if I’m constantly questioning the relationship I’m in, tomorrow might not be here.” This revelation, while potentially heartfelt, also worked as a strategy for Robby—JoJo later tells the cameras that Robby’s confessed feelings and experiences influenced her to keep him on the show and helped her trust him even when tabloids claimed he might have broken up with his previous girlfriend just so that he could appear on TV. The eventual winner of the season, Jordan Rodgers, similarly deployed autobiographical detail to win JoJo’s trust in the wake of controversial tabloid revelations. JoJo, and her viewing audience choosing to watch and commenting online, expected confessions and rewarded adherence to the well-worn tropes of autobiographical, confessional narrative.

Given the pop music and reality TV references in this post, a reader might be tempted to dismiss the observations here as trivial or irrelevant, but the performance of autobiographical conventions also affects, and can even shape, our politics. Just after summer 2016’s Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a “bounce” in her polling numbers, not just in terms of responses to her policy ideas, but also in terms of potential voters’ opinions on aspects of her character, such as being “in touch with the problems of normal Americans” and being “a president you could be proud of.” One reason for the post-Convention bounce? Former president Bill Clinton’s speech, which—as sources ranging from the New York Times to the Conservative Review commented—focused almost exclusively on “humanizing” the candidate via autobiographical stories about the Clintons’ relationship and family life. (This humanizing strategy was highly gendered, creating a portrait of self-proclaimed policy wonk Hillary Clinton as an emotional, even sexual, entity—a topic for another post.) Like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, and The Bachelorette’s many contestants over the years, Bill Clinton knew and used the power of the performative conventions of autobiographical narrative.

Reading African American Autobiography

Lamore-Reading-African-American-Autobiography-2016-c

Eric Lamore, editor of Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism, spoke with us about why it’s necessary to study overlooked texts to gain deep insight into African American life narratives. His book is published today in the Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series. 

What influence do you think that President Obama has had upon readers and writers of African American autobiography?

In putting together this collection of eleven essays on African American autobiography, I was particularly interested in Robert B. Stepto’s claim that scholars of African American literature need to rethink this canon because the President of the United

1995 edition

1995 edition

States for the last eight years is himself an African American writer. In his book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, Stepto compares relevant parts from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, with foundational literary texts, some of which are autobiographies. I titled my introduction “African American Autobiography in the Age of Obama” to emphasize this connection.

2004 edition

2004 edition

This election season, I went back and reread Obama’s Dreams, and I was struck by the President’s comments on reading. He wrote in the preface to the 2004 edition of his memoir that he wanted to revise parts of his book, because he would have told his life story differently had he written it later in his life. But, he commented that his 1995 memoir would be read differently as republished in a post-911 world, so he was quite aware of the relationship between text, reader, and context. Part of Obama’s contribution to the study of African American life narratives in the twenty-first century is this important point about the need to reread older life narratives, because cultural and political landscapes continue to change in the United States and around the world. One could reread pertinent African American life narratives from the past, for example, in the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

I think Obama’s Dreams also laid an important textual foundation for African American life narrators in the twenty-first century. Though Dreams was first published in 1995, Obama’s explorations of the biracial self, and his search for people and places (including outside the United States) that impacted his constructions of self, are found in much of twenty-first-century African American life writing. The last four essays in Reading African American Autobiography explore these themes. There are striking parallels between Obama’s Dreams and twenty-first-century African American life writing that scholars need to explore further.

How might future scholarship build on the essays in this volume?

The contributors and I collectively make the case that reading these life narratives in the twenty-first century requires scholars to consider a wide array of texts and a host of critical approaches. We also directly address ways that innovative critical frameworks, such as ecocriticism or queer theory, allow scholars to reread seminal life stories from our past in new ways.

Some of the contributors reclaim overlooked texts and lives, including a criminal confession camera manpublished on a broadside in the late eighteenth century, an abridged edition of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography published for children and adolescent readers in nineteenth-century New York, an uplift narrative published after the Civil War that contains important photographs, and autobiographical graphic narratives published in the late twentieth century. The slave narratives published in the antebellum period still remain very important, of course, but my book makes the case that scholars need to spend more time analyzing other overlooked texts and lives. More work needs to be done to recover neglected aspects of African American lives and to dig into texts that have not received adequate critical attention.

FoxyWe also call for studying a wider range of genres. Scholars today can look at the presentation of self in blogs, YouTube posts, graphic narratives, films, and photography, to name just a few genres. The intersection of genealogy and genetics, too, has produced all kinds of new information on African American lives that we need to consider. The printed page is still important, but these other channels make it clear that African American life narrators are telling their stories and exploring the self in ways beyond the writing of a memoir. All these varied explorations have expanded the canon of African American life narrative in dramatic ways. There is no doubt that the field must and will become more interdisciplinary.

In the book, we also look at celebrity life writing in the twenty-first-century. Almost all examples of this in the African American life narrative canon are collaborative projects. It would be fruitful to study that process, especially if there is documentation (transcribed interviews, recordings, and the like) mapping how the celebrity and the collaborating writer worked together.

In the chapter that you contributed to this collection about Olaudah Equiano, you draw on the history of books and publishing to shed light on the complex textual histories of the African American autobiographical tradition. 

Yes, I’ve been influenced by scholarship on early black Atlantic literature and book history. I’veEquiano collage written here about Abigail Mott’s 1829 abridged edition of Equiano’s autobiography. Usually, Equiano is understood as one of the main individuals of African descent involved in the political movement against the slave trade in 1780s Great Britain. The point of my chapter is that there is a whole different story on Equiano if you look closely at the several different editions of his autobiography that were published in the United States, both during his lifetime and following his death. Mott’s 1829 edition, published thirty-two years after Equiano’s death, was aimed at students in the New York African Free School. It is the first edition of Equiano’s autobiography I know of that was edited specifically for young African American readers in the United States.

Mott’s abridged edition is a perfect example of what I referred to earlier as an overlooked text. By looking at more than one edition, we can discover that Equiano’s autobiography was edited and read in the United States differently from editions published in Great Britain. These differences tell us a great deal about how editors and book publishers packaged Equiano’s life in specific ways for their readers. Mott’s edition shows us one of the points where Equiano’s autobiography entered the African American canon (though he clearly viewed himself as an Afro-British subject). Studying abridged, unauthorized, and posthumous editions of early black Atlantic life writing reveals a great deal about the changing histories and contexts of works that shaped the beginnings of the African American life writing tradition.

Lamore-Eric-2016-cEric D. Lamore is an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He is the editor of Teaching Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative: Pedagogical Strategies and New Perspectives and coeditor of New Essays on Phillis Wheatley.

New books, December & January

5498-165w

We are pleased to announce these new and soon-to-be-published books.

Published December 6
Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts: Seeking Justice after Genocide
Bert Ingelaere
“This masterful study provides a balanced, nuanced assessment of Rwanda’s local courts, showing how diverse social dynamics influenced both the operations of gacaca and its outcomes in different local communities. Essential reading for anyone interested in transitional justice and conflict resolution, in Rwanda and beyond.”—Catharine Newbury, Smith College
Critical Human Rights   Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

To be published January 10Lamore-Reading-African-American-Autobiography-2016-c
Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism
Edited by Eric D. Lamore
“These provocative essays reveal the exciting state of African American autobiographical studies. The critical approaches explored here—from new-media studies and eco-criticism to reading the interplay between visual and verbal autobiographical acts—not only frame and interpret the life narratives proliferating within today’s digital and popular cultures, they enliven classic literary texts for a contemporary age.”—Angela Ards, author of Words of Witness
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

5526-165wTo be published January 10
American Autobiography after 9/11

Megan Brown
“Demonstrates how several American life-writing subgenres have reflected and responded to national and personal anxieties after 9/11. This accessible and well-argued book is an essential resource for understanding contemporary memoir.”—G. Thomas Couser, Hofstra University
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

 

To be published January 175415-165w
Understanding and Teaching the Cold War
Edited by Matthew Masur
“A superb collection of authoritative, imaginative, and even provocative essays on teaching the history of the Cold War, effectively merging historiography, methodology, and innovative use of primary documents.”—Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century
The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History

John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

5493-165wTo be published January 17
Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: 
How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway
Michael O’Hear
“Serious students of modern sentencing reforms—as well as everyone eager to understand the roots of, and potential responses to, modern mass incarceration—must have this book on their reading list. O’Hear thoroughly canvasses the dynamic story of Wisconsin’s uniquely important sentencing reform history.”—Douglas Berman, author of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog