I am going to talk with Paul Hunter and Phoebe Bosche (with The Raven Chronicles) about the humanities and in particular writers in the information economy. We’ll bring our talk to Seattle Central Community College to talk as part of their series Conversations on Social Issues at 12 p.m. in Library Room A. If you are free for lunch that day and in Seattle, I hope you can make it.
Paul Hunter studied English at the University of Washington in the late 1960s, and was around in Seattle during the end of the first tech boom fueled by Boeing and the start of the counterculture in Seattle. He worked as an English instructor at a private school in Seattle where his students went off to work in the second and third-wave tech booms. Paul is a poet, musician, instrument-maker, teacher, and editor and publisher. For over a decade, he has produced letterpress books and broadsides under the imprint of Wood Works Press, located in Seattle. Hunter is the author of several chapbooks and four books of poetry: Ripening (2006) and Breaking Ground (2005 Washington State Book Award), both published by Silverfish Review Press; Mockingbird (1981, Jawbone Press) and Pullman (1976, University of Washington Press). He was profiled in on the PBS News Hour in 2007.
Paul brings a practical sensibility to technology. His letterpress is a manual effort that seems quixotic in the age of digital typesettings and print-on-demand, and yet, he uses a computer and wordprocessor to write his work. His press had a website at the very beginning of the web. And he is not above cutting some corners with his letterpress books. I once talked to him about his plan of using photopolymers to create plates for his letterpress that would enable him to use a layout program to typeset the work. Like any technologist, Paul was primarily interested in the product of the work and not necessarily a proscriptive about the means.
His poetry, too, his full of the love of Indiana farm live and the relationship of the farmers to this environment that is made of soil, pigs, and machines. Although much of his poetry is set in rural America and by dent of the detail seems to be pastoral, it is also like other great American writers such as Carl Sandberg, Walt Whitman, and Melville writing about work and technology.
Full summer wade in the field
every bloom awake and alive with bees
pull and taste a sweet sprig of
alfalfa red clover timothy
tip your cap back eye the day
weathercock to the wind
to sniff out moisture
as once begun you will need
a couple-three long hot dry ones
every strong back and hard hand
to make all your hay and put by
so give the word mow early and let lay
then rake in the windrows
and under the hot hand of noon
pass through the fields to turn again
worry each wisp in the sky
could bring ruin and stand and watch
leaves wilt to green nutrient
smell and feel fresh scarcely dry
then at a nod fire the tractor
and start the third time down the row
feel bailer push out the first
like a birth stop to heft
decide if the crop is really
too late too soon about perfect
then begin the long haul
circling the field
every bale lifted and thrown
boosted by knee and shoulder elbow
further the final ones flung
to the man on top stacking
onto the wagon drawn to
the far end of the field
mounting a teetering summit
then the slow run for the barn
where aloft begin building
a giant staircase as you climb
the sub-warm green-gold mountain
toward evening blue
silver tin roof shot with stars
pile another aching fragrant heaven
pitchdark kingdom come now rafter high
In contrast to Paul, I grew up in one of the longer busts in Seattle’s history. In the early 1970s Boeing had massive lay-offs and much of the city became vacant. This situation was perfect for counterculture people who could not stomach remote communal living but also wanted to live in a city that was off the beaten track. Seattle shrunk and was living in a 1950s era and sized town until the early 1990s. When I went to to LA once this reputation of Seattle as a laid back place to go to get lost was so well known that when I got my hair cut, the hair dresser looked wistfully into the distance. “Oh you are from Seattle. That explains it. I really should just move up there and just let myself go. You can’t do that in this town. In this town you have to be thing and you have to have it going on.”
The city I grew up can be seen in movies like Streetwise, Dog Fight, and Drugstore Cowboy. There is a reason that the music that came from Seattle in the late 80s could be reasonably called “grunge.” It is difficult to imagine now Seattle producing anything resembling the lumbering, atonal sound produced by overweight guys in flannel, or anything that could be stereotyped in that way.
I also went to the University of Washington. I wanted to study creative writing and in the early 1990s that didn’t seem that silly. Seattle was in the middle of a depression. Businesses downtown were getting closed. An education had nothing to do with the job you had since there didn’t seem to be any jobs. I didn’t want to work for Boeing. Microsoft existed, of course, but IBM clones were cumbersome beige machines that sat on desktops and ran spreadsheet applications like Lotus Notes. Making airplanes seemed better than that, and I didn’t want to work at Boeing. I saw my first Web browser in 1994. I graduated from college in 1995 and got a job using the one commercial skill that a English major with a creative writing degree could get: typing. I was a wordprocessor. By 1997 the second tech boom in Seattle was underway, and when I interviewed for jobs I was being interviewed by people who had been a year behind in the English program at the UW. And they were looking to hire people with at least five years of experience with the Internet. In 1997 and MFAs in digital design.
Eventually just by working I ended up in technology. I worked as a wordprocessor, and then a desktop publisher, and then as a technical writer, and then as an analyst and writer and really whatever the work needed me to do.
Technology raced forward in those years to the point that now I don’t learn a technology so much as I learn how to continue to learn about a particular technology. The technology I am using for my work now didn’t exist five years ago. I was able to read every book published on the subject in two months; and now I am piecing together notes people have written in the margins of the software applications. This year I am doing different work than I did two years ago using completely different tools and technology. I would not recognize the day to day activities of my work based on what I was doing ten years ago.
While my writing and composition classes were useful, it is the general training in humanities that I rely on. I must compile, research, synthesize information in a continual process. Every week is like a week in class. I have to be comfortable with my ignorance because the amount that I do not know is vast, my capacity to master something is nothing compared to the capacity of what is out there.
So I find myself returning, as a writer, to my sense of confidence when I really didn’t know I was doing. A poem like Making Hay is purely that. Paul has taken ownership of each word and concept in the poem and placed them into a larger structure that is coherent and passes along a capability to the reader. And I think that is all you can hope for in a piece of creative writing or the work you do for a job. Something small, concrete, and significant.