Monday, March 9, 2009

self-indulgent self-congratulation, a genre that the Web knows all too well

I was feeling morose about the number of Atlanta and Athens artists I have felt confident were headed for greater things who nevertheless didn't (some by self-sabotage, some by just plain bad luck) and was somewhat buoyed by the knowledge that I may (or may not) have written the first-ever fan letter to Sarah Vowell.

This unknown San Francisco writer named Sarah Vowell had sent an unsolicited book review to Art Papers sometime in the early 1990s, and I had looked at it before passing it on to editor Glenn Harper and resolved to write a note saying, "I don't know what Glenn is going to decide, but I really, really like your book review and hope you send us more of them."

I suspect I never actually wrote the letter but Sarah Vowell sent us a couple more book reviews and then disappeared from sight until one day we got a copy of Radio On and I said, to a general lack of interest from the rest of the office, "Hey, this is great, that reviewer I liked so much has written a book." After which I occasionally wondered whatever happened to Sarah Vowell until one day I was listening to NPR and heard her byline spoken before an op-ed piece. The rest is history, or a whole bunch of subsequently published books about history. (Looking again at my copy of The Wordy Shipmates reminded me of my writer's crush in the early '90s on this unknown sender of an over-the-transom review in a building that still has transoms.)

I tend to become rather passionate about work I believe in; when I decided decades ago that the Caribbean writer Derek Walcott was the only poet who interested me in an anthology of English-language Caribbean writers (so Aimé Césaire wasn't at issue), I ordered his books from England because they were unavailable here, and followed his subsequent career, including his poems as they came out in American Poetry Review. And I exploded when one day a local writer was sneering about the worthlessness of APR and wisecracked about their "house Jamaican, Derek Walcott." After correcting him that Walcott was from St. Lucia I went on a tirade about the plurality of poetry and why this guy's love for Charles Bukowski did not negate the value of Derek Walcott. (I shall refrain from telling the rest of the story, as the late Paul Harvey might have put it.)

It pleased me no end when Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature, though I am sure that this guy, like some others who I will not name, is of the opinion that if somebody wins the Nobel Prize, it means that they suck.

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