Second Notes on “Berfrois the Book,” “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” and AWP19: Lonely, the Book

One day, almost ten years ago, down at the Bipartisan Café, in Montavilla, reading on my laptop, I was gobsmacked to find someone had published on their site a piece I’d recently written for my blog, The Coming of the Toads. At the time, I’d not yet heard of Berfrois or its editor Russell Bennetts. Now, with book publications “Befrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2019), Berfrois opens a new wing in its reach for readers and writers.

This week, the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference is being held here in Portland. Berfrois will have a table in the book fair, the new books available for perusal, purchase, on display.

Ten years is already a long life for an enterprise devoted to and sustaining a “literary-intellectual online magazine” – that updates daily, no less. And Berfrois has managed to remain ad free while adding writers and readers, expanding its original format and content, publishing in addition to poetry, fiction, essays, photography, and notes and comment from around the Web, books in Ebook format: “’Relentless’ by Jeff Bezos,’” and “Poets for Corbyn,” for example.

Yet those same ten years have seen the continued growth of “the reading crisis,” and the “death of blogs,” debate over online versus paper reading, argument over possible decline in reading abilities and skills, and the perceived watering down of the value of a Humanities degree. Higher education is, in the opinion of many, in turmoil as increasingly news appears of schools turning to business models, cutting traditional programs, and even turning to sketchy recruiting schemes as revealed in the recent college admission crisis story, and all the while tuitions and fees rising while the whole edifice relying more and more on an adjunct workforce unable to sustain itself on local economies. What’s a writer to do?

You might move to New York, or get an MFA. That’s a choice? Or do both? Elizabeth Bishop did, sort of. She moved to New York and began teaching in a program, the “U.S.A. School of Writing.” It was a correspondence course, the kind that used to advertise on the back of a book of matches. Having just graduated college, Bishop was in New York during the Great Depression:

“Perhaps there seemed to be something virtuous in working for much less a year than our educations had been costing our families….” [but] “It was here, in this noisome place, in spite of all I had read and been taught and thought I knew about it [writing] before, that the mysterious, awful power of writing first dawned on me. Or, since ‘writing’ means so many different things, the power of the printed word, or even that capitalized Word whose significance had previously escaped me and then made itself suddenly, if sporadically, plain….”

What Bishop is talking about is “Loneliness.”

“In the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society but to get into it…Without exception, the letters I received were from people suffering from terrible loneliness in all its better-known forms, and in some I had never even dreamed of.”

(The New Yorker, July 18, 1983, retrieved 25Mar19 via TNY on-line archive available to subscribers).

With a few small changes, Bishop’s article might have been written by an adjunct instructor in today’s education marketplace. It seems unlikely though that the attendees I’ll see around AWP19 will all be lonely. But how’s a mere reader to know?

…to be continued.

This post is the second in a series. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

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