USA Literature Panel for 2010

Major Jackson (Chair)

Poet and Associate Professor, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT

John Biguenet

Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA

Maureen N. McLane

Associate Professor of English, New York University, New York, NY

Antonya Nelson

Writer and USA Simon Fellow, Las Cruces, NM

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Statement by Maureen N. McLane

Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English, The University of Georgia, Athens

In our new media ecology, plenty of pundits announce the death of literature, along with other related deaths—of print, of poetry, of the novel, of plays, of serious journalism, of substantive criticism. Yet everywhere in the U.S., and beyond our borders, writers are remaking the literary arts to answer to the ways we live now. In an era saturated with information, when people are besieged by the twenty-four-hour news cycle, when social networking takes up more of our time, when attention-deficit-disorder seems not so much a malady but our common condition—how much more essential then is that intimate compact between writer and reader, between playwright and audience. United States Artists is helping artists to sustain and re-forge that compact.

William Carlos Williams observed decades ago in his long poem Paterson:

The writing is nothing, the being
in a position to write (that’s
where they get you) is nine tenths
of the difficulty . . .

USA is providing some of our best, most searching writers the optimal conditions to get “in a position to write.” Our country has no aristocracy given to patronizing artists; we do not have broad state funding for artists. What we have is a strong, complicated democratic inheritance, which alternately honors and ignores our artists. Fellowships and residencies offer writers time, money, but also, crucially, encouragement—this last suggesting, via etymology, a strengthening of heart: Bon courage! Take heart! From my own experience with residencies and fellowships, I know that they provided me with very welcome material assistance, but also with less measurable, incomparable gifts: a timely endorsement, an upsurge of confidence, permission to dive more deeply into unforeseen waters, as well as a precious freedom to “lean and loafe at my ease,” as Walt Whitman put it. Out of such apparent loafing may come the most exciting and the most exacting work.

As one of this year’s USA Fellows observed, it is very hard to say no to commercial work: one must make a living, and livings aren’t easily made by making complex or surprising art, or by undertaking years-long, intensive projects. A fellowship allows a writer to return to the marrow of her commitment, to discover new commitments, and to think of deadlines with eternity, not merely next month. As I read this year’s USA Fellows’ work, and speculated about their emerging and future work, I thought of Whitman, how he would salute these writers as comrades and fellow citizens and fellow makers: these are the writers Whitman called for, the ones truly adequate to a vast, varied, sprawling nation, its inward thrusts and its outward movements. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844, “America is a poem in our eyes.” These writers are writing the great unfolding difficult unpredictable border-crossing poem that is America.