Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mercury, in ZYX

Mercury, the Dime was recently reviewed in the literary magazine ZYX. The editor is Arnold Skemer, who (I assume) also wrote the review. I’m actually not sure of the issue number – I’m guessing 40, but if anyone can confirm or correct this, please post a comment. I’ve only seen a tear-sheet/photocopy of the page, not the whole mag.

I hope Mr. Skemer will not object to my reproducing the review here:

MERCURY, THE DIME, Michael S. Begnal, Six Gallery Press, P.O. Box 90145, Pittsburgh, PA 15224, 2005, perfect-bound, 46 pp. 0-9746033-7-6, $6.99. Were it not for having previously read MOBILE by Michel Butor, I don’t think I would have made a point of this, but MERCURY resembles it with its sense of placement in “these United States.” There is movement across the map of signal locations that suggest some abstruse, contemplative quality, the underside of cities and towns, the varieties of descriptive experience: “...the Boyd Hotel,/ empty,/ its outside finish of plaster/ worn off/ ...the paint of its big mural.../ chipped and faded,/ its rates unreadable.” The faded landscape of the perpetually changing nightfall, the undramatic country that is unchanging. These early poems reveal the young poet in development. This ur-Begnal is suggestive of an interesting future which some of us have already encountered.

ZYX, 58-09 205th Street, Bayside, NY, 11364.

ZYX does not have a website, apparently, but issue 10 is online. An opinion piece by Arnold Skemer is also online. Reviews of recent issues of the magazine can be found at New Hope International Review.

(As an aside, the above photo is of the real Hotel Boyd, San Francisco, which, I have just discovered, has recently been renovated! When I wrote about it, in 1993 I think, it was in a fairly run-down yet still bizarrely intriguing state, seen from windows of a passing bus...) (The photo is by Mark Ellinger, from his excellent site.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A United Ireland?

For a variety of reasons I have recently been wondering about the prospects of a united Ireland, not the least being that 2006 is both the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes. It’s easy to be pessimistic about Irish unity, however, as there has been little tangible progress in the last couple years, and unionists (particularly the DUP) continue to avoid engaging with republicans on the issue of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (which was originally reached in 1998). Still, this is not to say that the Agreement itself is completely in mothballs, since the various bodies formed under its remit continue to exist, albeit with British direct rule ministers replacing those meant to be drawn from the various parties of the North.

It is to be hoped that the current impasse can be broken. The IRA has fully disarmed, and this has been verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Therefore the “terrorism” excuse that unionists have hidden behind for so long, in order to avoid talking with Sinn Féin, is no longer tenable. But if the DUP continues drag its feet and an Executive cannot be set up, so be it. Other aspects of the Agreement will go on. So it seems to me like it would actually be in the DUP’s best interest to engage. The alternative is being left out in the cold while the two governments press ahead with a “greener” form of direct rule based on the Agreement anyway. Of course, I am not exactly au fait with DUP thinking.

From a republican point of view, the Agreement can be frustrating. It seems to give unionism a veto over Irish unity. It is not what the IRA waged a 30-year resistance struggle for. Not what Bobby Sands and the others starved to death for. But the reality of the armed struggle must be recognized – it had reached a stalemate and was not going to achieve an immediate united Ireland. Some would say it had become a detriment to that cause. I personally see no point in going back to the armed struggle. Despite the unpalatable elements of the Agreement, it does include provisions for a united Ireland if a majority in the North votes for it in a referendum. Thus the paradox: how to get a “majority” vote?

I put the word “majority” in quotes because the Northern state itself is an artificial entity created by a British border commission with political expediency in mind. The idea was to choose just the right amount of territory with a safe unionist majority. The province of Ulster actually has nine counties, yet only six were thought safe enough to become the unionist state of “Northern Ireland.” However, in the past 85 years since the border commission, the unionist majority in the North has been cut to the point where nationalists are just about drawing even. West of the Bann is majority nationalist. While many would criticize the notion of sectarian headcounts and the “outbreed ’em” theory, the Northern state itself was predicated on sectarianism, so possibly it could be a case of chickens coming home to roost? Mindful of Northern Ireland’s genesis, it is quite possible that political expediencies could shift, or are shifting. Being something like 15% of the population of the island of Ireland, it seems unjust that what is in actuality a unionist minority is allowed to perpetuate partition, which affects all of Ireland.

One thing that has been made obvious in the last decade-and-a-half of the peace process is that the British government no longer considers the North to be an integral part of the UK. From Peter Brooke’s statement in 1990 that partition was simply “an acknowledgment of reality, not an assertion of national self-interest” and that “the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” to its reaffirmation by John Major in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, to the Good Friday Agreement itself, Britain seems to have stated that it would not be opposed to a united Ireland. Though the Agreement says “the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern to maintain the Union” (yet note the use of the word “present”), it does also specifically state that the British and Irish governments “...recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, and without external impediment, to exercise their right to self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish...” Clearly the British government does not view the North of Ireland in the same light as the rest of the current UK. (The Agreement was, of course, also accepted by the people in referendums both North and South, by large majorities.)

Personally, I find it hard to say whether a border poll would have any success in the near future. I think that there would have to be a lot of engagement between all sides in the North before any such agreement could be reached, and that a level of trust would have to be built up through the working of the political institutions of the Agreement. But who knows – if a referendum were really to be held it would inevitably focus minds once the tangible possibilities were brought forward. Of course it could also concentrate unionist minds against the proposition, and frankly it is unlikely that they are suddenly going to vote against the Union any time soon. Nor should we expect them to.

I also think that the main reason the DUP has been trying to obstruct the process is because deep down they fear reconciliation, and they know that change is in the offing, in some form or another. They would rather maintain sectarian division as a means of preserving the status quo. It’s ultimately got to be a useless tactic. Certainly there are some in the party that recognize this. In an interesting move, the DUP recently (19 Aug.) lauded Sinn Féin’s approval of a DUP motion calling on all paramilitary groups to stand down. Not only did this allow SF an opportunity to reiterate its peace strategy, but it prompted DUP MP Gregory Campbell to say, “We are pleased that the representatives of all the parties, particularly Sinn Féin, accepted the impact that such a move would have on community relations and that it should occur immediately.” A possible opening to negotiations with SF? In reality, the DUP has already sat in the Stormont parliament of which SF was also a part, and works with them on committees and in local councils.

But perhaps an Executive, or a referendum on Irish unity, isn’t really even that necessary in the short term. The North-South bodies which exist as part of the Agreement can be built upon. They could even be considered the embryonic structure for a united Ireland. They are already there. Certainly Sinn Féin’s strategy for achieving that goal is to build upon the all-Ireland structures of the Agreement. As I am not a SF member (or a member of any other party or political group for that matter) I won’t parrot their policies here, but they are well worth taking into consideration. I can’t say that I disagree with them in the current circumstances. The Agreement was always simply a transitional period, and the political situation is fluid. The Agreement stipulates that there will be “at least” six cross-border bodies, but does not rule out more. It could well be that given the tide of history and demographics, and the (hopefully) neutral position of the British government, along with the all-Ireland frameworks already in place, that we could see a united Ireland become the de facto situation even as the North maintains links to the UK.

Instead of a “winner takes all” situation, why not expand our thinking a little bit and allow both sides to have what they want? Call it a united Ireland, call it the UK, call it joint sovereignty (which certainly is already in effect to a degree) – in a postmodern world cannot all of these states co-exist? A North where to live in the Irish Republic (in the North) does not mean that the person next to you is not living in the UK, and vice-versa. Perhaps I am being naïve. But if that is naïve it is no more so than “Brits Out” or “Not an Inch,” and in any case the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic states that it “cherish[es] all of the children of the nation equally and [is] oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Begnal interview by Menesini, from Encyclopedia Destructica

[The following is the text of the interview I gave John Thomas Menesini for the Pittsburgh mag Encyclopedia Destructica, issue 1 of the 2nd (“Bumba”) edition, published May 2006.]

Age of Quarrel: An Interview with Poet Michael S. Begnal

JTM: How did Mercury, the Dime come to be? Did you study Native American History in university?

MSB: Mercury, the Dime is still something of a youthful work, written in 1992-93, in my mid-twenties. What I’m doing now is much different in form. But Mercury came about unconsciously at first — simply writing about the things I saw when I was living in L.A., and then when I moved to San Francisco. It began to cohere as a single long work when I brought that historical underpinning to it, the Indian stuff, the Route 66 stuff, the Elvis stuff, the baseball stuff, etc. This gave me an historical platform over which individual experience could be elaborated, and manipulated. It is concerned with the nostalgia of American Mythology, simultaneously revels in it and subverts it. At least, that is the idea. Like, there’s this great nostalgia attached to American Indians among a lot of white people. At the same time, this country was founded on genocide. But no, I didn’t specifically study Native American History. Whatever wasn’t common knowledge came from books. At one point I had a job at [a well-known commercial book publisher] in San Francisco, and we would occasionally get awarded free books. I usually chose the ones about ancient cultures. They were more interesting than, say, the ones about gardening.

JTM: This is something we’ve talked about before, the role of the poet in the ancient sense — do you think that role is the same even if their place in society is not?

MSB: In certain societies throughout history, poets have had a much more central, even public, position, as in Gaelic culture in Ireland. But when material circumstances change and that almost institutional role is destroyed, there are still going to be people who are drawn to language as a medium, who feel compelled to put something forward through poetry which can’t simply be expressed through prose. It seems like in contemporary Western society the poet has become fairly marginalized, or interacts in small groups of other writers, or in universities. This has its downside for sure. But it might also allow for a larger degree of artistic freedom. You don’t necessarily have to play to the lowest common denominator.

JTM: We have a country that pumps democracy through the loudspeakers, yet the foundation is built on treachery and thievery. How do you think this and where we are at in the world right now weighs on the everymind? It’s naïve sure, but how do you get through the day knowing that awful things happen, and will continue to?

MSB: It is impossible to escape the realities of our age, the “War on Terror” etc., and for a writer this raises certain questions. Most specifically, how to deal with this in one’s poems without coming off as political-propagandist, without lapsing into what used to be called Socialist Realism. For me, I think the anxieties of our current political situation and so forth manifest themselves organically in my writing. And as my writing is inevitably bound up with my view of the world, it would be ridiculous to censor this aspect. On a personal level, you still have to do whatever you have to do to get through the day, not think about it sometimes, not allow it to obsess you.

JTM: There was an ongoing argument between you and another writer a few years back. The argument, if my memory serves correct, was over the content of poetry; he claiming if it did not serve a higher purpose (in this case political) it was “art for art’s sake” whereas your angle was regardless of the “righteous” intentions, a bad poem is still a bad poem. Could you elaborate on this, and where is the line drawn between social observation and all-out political tirade?

MSB: You’re referring to the Irish poet Kevin Higgins, who I worked with for a time on The Burning Bush literary magazine. I wouldn’t initially have labeled it as an argument, since I didn’t even have the slightest idea there was a rift between us when he left the magazine — he never verbalized this. But you could say that we did later find ourselves at odds over some of the issues you just raised. In reality, we were probably not quite as far apart politically as Higgins contended. But I did for a brief time feel that he was letting his obvious gifts go to waste in the service of propaganda (for lack of a better word), even though I might have agreed with what he was saying on a given issue. Still, it’s all a process of evolution, and I imagine Kevin had to go through that to become the writer he is today; and he is incidentally very good, one of the best contemporary Irish poets. To answer the other part of the question, politics is an obvious major part of life, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think ideologically all the time.

JTM: You grew up in the 80’s with Thatcher in England and Reagan in the White House; the same fears of those under the H-Bomb became those under the Nuclear Bomb. The reaction to this was hardcore, yes? Would you agree that though not overly political, bands such as Minor Threat and Black Flag attempted to make sense of the mess they saw around them? What was the feeling in the 80’s with the Cold War? Did you think the bomb could drop at anytime, that the USSR or we could snap and push that damn button, and did the music of the time do anxiety justice, did the uncertainty translate, did it unite?

MSB: Well, of course hardcore was trying to make sense of the world at the time, but on more of an immediate personal level. Despite the political lyrics of many of the bands, you’ll notice that most of the quintessential hardcore bands (like Minor Threat and Black Flag) were not really concerned with that. The politics was there, though, of course it was. But hardcore can’t really be reduced to a Cold War reaction. Mostly it was a bunch of kids who were alienated from mainstream society, who had noted the failures of the 60’s generation, and who somehow briefly managed to create a scene of their own, which existed underground, virtually unrecognized, and was completely and utterly separate from the commercial music scene. So yes, it did unite some people in a very real way, through a specific type of music, for a brief time in the early 80’s. But very few people knew about it at the time, relatively speaking. I was a teenager then, and was lucky to be in a position to get into the hardcore scene. I don’t remember ever really being afraid of a nuclear bomb dropping. Some people probably were, and there are more than a couple hardcore songs on the subject. What was a bigger concern for me, approaching draft age, was that Reagan would invade Nicaragua or El Salvador and we’d end up in another Vietnam. That never happened, although all the fears there were of war and fascism under Reagan would now seem to be realized under the Bush regime.