The Relevance of Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk

By Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence


Americans love the art of the spectacle. And if you’re talking business, there’s nothing like a giant American flag and patriotic music to sell whatever it is you want to sell. It becomes a dangerous cocktail, this concoction of flag-waving jingoism, capitalism, and pageantry.

Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain may look, at first blush, like a novel about U.S. military involvement in the Middle East; however, it’s more about what the conflict says about the current state of America’s moral and ethical fiber. By all rights, protagonist Billy Lynn is an all-American hero: combat veteran, recipient of a Silver Star, and Texan. The story itself, in case you’ve yet to read it, follows Specialist Billy and his fellow members of Bravo Squad on a whirlwind two-week “Victory Tour” that has all the hallmarks of a PR stunt.

The eight surviving Bravos are shuttled from city to city during their tour, eventually ending up at the pièce de résistance: the Thanksgiving Day halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. The Bravos are marched out on stage while Destiny’s Child croons, fireworks explode, and cheerleaders prance. What is at the most optimistic a chance to honor the soldiers, seems a whole lot like using the soldiers as a prop.

We learn that the footage of the battle, captured by an embedded Fox News team, has become its own spectacle. The life-and-death reality of daily life for the Bravos is little more than a nifty action sequence to bolster feel-good patriotism. What was all-too real to the Bravos is surreal to the patriotic well-wishers: “Everyone always says how much like a movie the footage is.” It’s evident that it’s not the battle or what they did that’s important to the squad’s “fans”; it is the spectacle now that matters: a fantasy played out on the evening news. Their momentary celebrity has nothing to do with the reality of their actions. Rather, their actions have become part of a new narrative—one that no longer belongs to them.  Against their will, the story has been co-opted and repurposed.

A novel like Billy Lynn could scarcely be more timely. The 2016 election cycle was dominated by the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. It was also an election cycle dominated by spectacle, or, what Ben Fountain calls the Fantasy Industrial Complex. It’s exactly this complex that elevated the election to a fevered pitch across the nation. The actual issues are brushed aside and replaced with sheer spectacle; Billy Lynn would recognize this as the same attitude that leads to the awkward hypocrisy of citizens who pat themselves on the back for having thanked a soldier for his service. Read more…

Photo Gallery: Ross Gay

On February 7 at McCaw Hall, Ross Gay—the joyous and nurturing poet who authored Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude—read from his latest work and talked gardening, compassion, and attending to the world. SAL’s Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs introduced the program and moderated their conversation. Abdullahi Mohamed, a student from West Seattle High School who participated in the WITS program with WITS Writer-in-Residence Daemond Arrindell, opened the evening with his poem, “Holy.”

To view more photos from this event, head over to our Facebook page. To read Gabrielle Bates’ essay on Ross Gay and “joy as discipline,” click here.

On Ross Gay and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

By Gabrielle Bates

I feel like a different type of tenderness might be emerging.—Ross Gay

When Ross Gay read for the SAL Poetry Series last week, it was exactly what I needed. I dare say it was exactly what we all needed. All of us streaming into that auditorium from the cold—carrying our bodies quickly, or slowly—hungry, or full—straight from work, or no work, or school or basketball practice or a baby’s crib—each variation of us—we sat, and there was Ross Gay, smiling, resplendent in a green t-shirt, inviting us to smile too, and laugh and gasp and grab for our neighbor’s hand. His stunning ambition—linguistic, relational, emotional—is still with me as I write this. Gay, it turns out, is just as effusive in person as he is in the poems of his most recent collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

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I read this collection for the first time last year, while I was still in poem-school, busy trying to be taken seriously. The brightly colored book beckoned from the shelf at Open Books, and I was instantly hooked. Gay dared to praise without irony and embody deep sentiment in a way that risked being seen as silly. He took the kind of risks I thought were off limits, and thus opened a door. As soon as I finished it, I bought a copy for my mother, even though she doesn’t typically read poetry. It’s the kind of book one wants to give as a gift. Read more…

WITS Voices: Teaching William Steig

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence


Most people who know William Steig’s work think of him as the creator of classic children’s books like Shrek and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But in the mid-20th century, Steig created numerous picture books for adults: Persistent Faces, The Lonely Ones, The Rejected Lovers, and many others. Most of these works could be described as existentialist graphic literature, with the artist using captioned illustrations to explore a worldview that seems much colder and anxiety-ridden than fans of his kids’ books might expect.

A common Steig trope was to title his books with an adjective and a noun, and then explore that single theme throughout the book via dozens of separate (though thematically-linked) characters or illustrations. These books aren’t narratives, then, so much as exercises in visual and conceptual thinking: Rejected Lovers shows us all the different possible fates (denial, anger, self-pity, delusion, despair) that await the spurned suitor, through a variety of visual strategies. Some images have backgrounds, while others are vignettes; we see characters from far way or at close range, depending on what approach best serves the content.

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As both a teacher and a cartoonist, I’ve been deeply inspired by Steig’s little books, and have borrowed his adjective-noun approach for student projects many times. This is my seventh year as a WITS Writer-in-Residence (or Graphic Novelist-in-Residence, if you want to split hairs) working with the 6th graders at McClure Middle School, and one of my favorite exercises this year has been assigning them to make miniature Steigian works of their own (a few of which are shown in the photo above). I start this activity by displaying a list of adjectives and nouns side by side on a screen, and ask the students to create a combination that evokes a rich, funny, or unexpected theme. Then, they do exactly what Steig did ­– though in a much shorter, 8-page booklet – by exploring that single theme in as many different characters as it takes to fill the book. Here’s a closer look at some of their creations. Read more…

Helen Macdonald at Benaroya Hall: A Comic

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence

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This amazing comic was created by WITS Writer-in-Residence Greg Stump after he attended SAL’s Literary Arts Series lecture by memoirist, nature writer, and falconer Helen Macdonald on February 1, 2017.

Thank you, Greg!

“Untitled Tags,” by Joseph Hairston, Seattle Youth Poet Ambassador


Untitled Tags

Rest in Peace to Mike Brown
17-year-old graduate shot down
In the middle of the street
For a swisher sweet
Complete chaos no peace
When will we reach that day
That day we don’t see color
That day where we can all call each other sisters and brothers
All across the globe we shall hold hands and encourage
Instead I’m judged because I worked with good police officers–I don’t give a damn
I seen the good and the bad
I’ve been treated like royalty and trash
Royalty only because I was in the front seat and not in the back
You call us statistics

Not knowing we had dreams and ambition
Mommy I wanna become a doctor that’s on my wishlist
Never wanted to be on the corner saying here bro hit this
I wanna change
I swear on my dad’s grave I wanna change
But when I wear this hoodie torn jeans and a hat they see the same
Not just cops
Not just my family but my school
Too dorky to hang with the popular
Too rude to hang with my old friends
Too black to live in front of a cop Read more…

A SAL Love Story: Dana & John

Forget Tinder—from friendships to loveships, SAL’s been bringing folks together for almost thirty years now through good books and good conversation. That why, this Valentine’s Day, we’re featuring one couple – Dana Bettinger and John Jacobs – who have been long-time friends of SAL. We asked them to share their SAL love story, including what role reading plays in their relationship, what events they attend, and how SAL even had a small part in their wedding plans. (Plus, they sent photos of the most gorgeous blue wedding dress you’ll ever see!)

1) How did you and your husband, John, meet?

John and I met on a Saturday night, at a birthday party for our mutual friend, Rachel. I knew very few people other than the host, and John originally had other plans for that night—so he nearly didn’t come to the party! We definitely had an immediate connection: the next day, both of us independently contacted Rachel and inquired about each other. Our first date (take-out Thai food at my house) was the following Monday, and we’ve pretty much been together ever since.

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2) You first got involved with SAL on a deeper level because of your wedding plans—tell me a little about that! How did that come about?

I’m a long-time SAL Literary Series subscriber, having attended with my friend for many years. When I started dating John, he would join me occasionally (if she had a conflict and couldn’t attend), and then decided that he wanted to be a part of the series for the following year. We had never attended the Words Matter Gala until two years ago, when we thought it would be a fun way to support an organization we value, while also attending a fancy event at Sodo Park, where we had already committed to having our wedding a few months later! Read more…

“Holy” by WITS Student Abdullahi Mohamed

Holy

the first breath you take and
the last exhale of your life, Holy
the song stuck in your head, Holy
from a hug to a kiss to love, Holy
the new jeans you bought, Holy
when you looked better in the picture, Holy
from the speed talker to the stutterers, Holy
the anger passing you that no one realizes
the times spent with family and
laughter shared with your peers
that first bite and last sip, Holy Read more…

WITS Voices: An Alternative to Alternative Facts

By Jeanine Walker, WITS Writer-in-Residence


By the time this post is published, we will have endured several tens of other injustices, threats on our freedoms, and evasions from the new presidential administration, and the idea of “alternative facts” will, I imagine, be filed under the Folder of Growing Insanities—which is to say, not quite forgotten but deemed equal or less than other anxiety-inducing assertions and legislation we will have to face.

However, I also think this is a term that will stick. Because it bears striking resemblance to the now-known-as-prophetic 1984’s “doublethink,” the claim two weekends ago by Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway to “alternative facts” rings a certain alarming bell, awakening in us the apocalyptic literature in which many of us found ourselves engrossed for the purpose of high school English class but able, then, to read as pure fiction. The fact that a story we once dreaded in its fictitious form is now becoming more and more true makes the experience of the present moment even more striking, terrifying. There is something crucially painful in having lost the comfort that came with believing a dystopian world such as the one Orwell depicts was not possible for us. We were duped. What once existed inside of us as metaphor and figure emerges as a wolf with a hundred times as ferocious a snarl—because we are not experiencing it just once now but twice as we simultaneously endure the transformation of a beloved metaphorical world into a frightening, almost unbearable, reality. Read more…