Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Steve Kistulentz: The Luckless Age
I’d like to believe in an America where ketchup was never a vegetable, where half the population did not revere a president for his fake triumph over a weakened nation that could barely feed its people; I’d like to believe in America where our tax policy is the sign and signal of our commitment to the least among us, our commitment to the public’s health, education, and welfare. I’d like to believe (again) in men who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war, and tried to stop it.
That is the America I was born unto.
I grew up among those who heeded a president’s call to national service as our responsibility in representative democracy, who believed that the best and brightest had both a duty and obligation to serve. They believed in activism and fairness, and in one man, one vote, and they were proud of an America where democracy prevailed and where our long national nightmare was over.
We do not live in that America anymore.
We live in an America of ignorance and gluttonous self-regard. We do not live as communities but as millions of disconnected and distracted individuals. We devalue education and expertise at every turn, yet fail to see how a nation of coddled “A” students cannot solve simple equations, write in standard English, or change their own oil. In other words, we are the end product of The Luckless Age.
I had that title for almost 10 years before I knew what the book would be, how my new book The Luckless Age (Red Hen Press) might come to embody an alternative history of the late 20th century. I wrote enough poems for three books, kept adding and subtracting, and eventually these obsessions came to the surface; there was the pleasant distraction of Top 40 radio morphing into the grinding white noise of guitars and amps; there was the seductive presence of the city, Washington, DC; but mostly, in the tension between the political and the personal, I found a persistent feeling that along the way, somehow all of us had taken a wrong turn. And what I’d learned from these imaginary histories was that even though we often know exactly where we’d gone wrong, we were often still powerless to fix it.
The book is more than a chorus of the dispossessed; it’s reportage from the assassinations of the 1960s, a remembrance of the conspiracies and gas lines of the 1970s, and an indictment of the plastic jingoism and simple slogans of the 1980s. It is the ecstatic music of liberation found in our greatest rock-and-roll anthems. These lyrics tell another story too, illuminated by the abiding hope that America itself is resilient enough to live up to its promises. It’s the optimism found in Senator Robert Kennedy’s paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw: Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?
Steve Kistulentz’ The Luckless Age was selected from almost 600 manuscripts as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award by judge Nick Flynn, and was published on February 1 by Red Hen Press. From 1996-2004, he was an instructor at The Writer's Center. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary magazines, including the Antioch Review, Barn Owl Review, Barrelhouse, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Mississippi Review, New England Review, Quarterly West, and many others. He is a two-time winner of the Academy of American Poets John Mackay Shaw Prize. He currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Millsaps College. He will read Friday, February 4, along with a host of other poets at Red Hen Press’s annual AWP off-site reading, held this year at The Big Hunt, 1345 Connecticut Avenue NW, starting at 7PM.