Issue 46 (Vol. 11 No. 4). Summer 2000


The greatest social theme of our time is the empowerment of those previously regarded as powerless.  Familiarly, this development changed the lives of African-Americans and women.  Less familiar are changes that have happened in both education and publishing.  When most of us were young, we were told that publication was a process that involved gate-keepers, namely editors and publishers, who decide whether a piece of writing was “publishable,” which is to say fit to be seen in print.  (I remember a friend my age, a prominent writer now teaching in a university MFA program, telling me recently that a certain student’s work was “unpublishable.”  I had to remind him that at the current time “there is no such thing as ‘unpublishable’—only published and unpublished.”)

This last great change reflected the dissemination of photocopy machines in the late 1960s, enabling any writer of any age and background to make as many accurate copies as he or she wanted of something he or she had written.  (It was not for nothing that totalitarian countries forbade the duplication of more than a small number of copies without first obtaining a license.  Photocopy machines, needless to say, were not publicly available in the Eastern bloc, while photocopy shops didn’t exist.)  A further development came in the 1980s with the dissemination of the personal computer, enabling a writer to design her or his words to look approximately professional.  Publication per se was no longer an obstacle course, though superior merchandizing was what distinguished the big name publishers from lone individuals.

The great achievement of the Waterways Project was extending this laudable principle and the opportunities it implied to the New York City public schools.  Quite simply, the Waterways directors, Barbara Fisher and Richard Alan Spiegel, encourage students not only to write poems and prose but to prepare their work for publication in chapbooks, or small books, that are printed in small editions.  The student authors receive ten gratis copies; the surplus (of editions of 50 or so) is made available to teachers to use in their classes.  Precisely because the format is feasible, I could imagine students producing subsequent chapbooks on their own.  I could also imagine one aspiring writer whose work was for one or another reason deemed “unacceptable” later producing a volume that visually resembled those in the Waterways series.  Directly as well as indirectly, Waterways has served hundreds of individuals.

Courageously, to their credit, Fisher and Spiegel work mostly not with the “star” city students at the academically famous high schools but with those at “vocational” and “alternative” institutions, including those imprisoned, many of whom have registered reading scores below the average for their respective ages.  My own feeling is that, especially because such students have been told they are “backward,” publication becomes intrinsically laudable, gratifying the urge to communicate and incidentally enhancing self-esteem, among other qualities we want to encourage, here at a low cost.  As the child of immigrants (from Russian and Asia Minor), I’m glad the students who dream in languages other than English are encouraged to write in those tongues, in addition to making their work available to a larger audience through translations, ideally by their own hand.

Another important move made by Waterways, a move whose significance should not be ignored, is the publication of perfect bound anthologies, producing not only vehicles of communication within the community of aspiring writers but professional-looking books to be used by teachers, demonstrating to students what is possible, namely what has already been achieved, among their own kind.  I’m relieved that Waterways rewards good work not with degrees or other certificates of accreditation but publication, something in print.  After all, that is how the larger world works, thought the academic universe might differ.  Some of the larger Waterways books contain more established writers along with young people, typically not revealing within the book itself who’s who.

One question that arises is the “quality” of such work.  In reading through the publications I often came upon excellent, memorable lines, but what marked their writer as a beginner was an inability to sustain it.  (This comes, needless to say, with practice, which begins with acknowledging he need for rewriting.)  Consider this opening to Kevin Dalton’s “Laws of the Jungle,” which appeared in Strictly Business, VI/1 (Spring 1995), published by Waterways at Rikers Island Educational Facility.  Note how the opening sentence establishes a level that is not sustained: “I am presently a resident of the city’s steel jungle, open to the violators of the public, where no man wishes to be.  The laws of the public that you may or may not know have changed.  The little freedom you had is no longer.”  Some of the Waterways chapbooks modestly approach Book Art (aka Artist’s Books) in integrating image and words over a succession of pages.  Remembering undergraduate courses that I took in “creative writing” a while ago, I’d say, as a rule, that generosity from a teacher is more important than the inculcation of particular “standards.”

My sense is that if somebody does something that somebody else thinks is good, he or she is on the way.  That something can be writing or music, dance or visual art; it can be sport.  As an athlete needs a court or playing field to display his or her prowess, so the writer needs machinery to reproduce printed copies.  (Remember the classic A. J. Liebling line that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.)  What Waterways does is provide aspiring writers with playing fields and thus the opportunity for informal peer review.  Obviously, the young writer who wins more readers will be a bit further along, much as the young athlete who earns more fans or gets chosen first when teams are put together has accomplished a career step.  This peer selectivity is natural and not to be discouraged.

The first steps to distinction usually come from doing what others cannot—in sports with technique, in art with form.  The fundamental negative rule is transcending easy moves, whether with one’s body or with words.  Obvious sentiments or clichés are finally no more acceptable than dribbling directly at the basket.  There is a hint of such development in Matthew Rydell’s text “Panorama” on p. 127 of the Streams 8 anthology (1994), where a skinny vertical text becomes a counterpoint to more extended horizontal lines.  A second measure of maturity is realizing excellence consistently.  Anyone can make a lucky three-point shot once in a while, to continue the basketball analogy; but doing it consistently separates potential pros from amateurs.  My principal disappointment with the Waterways printed materials submitted to me is that none of them involve extended forms.  Almost anyone can run a hundred yards, to change sports; but ten miles requires planning and practice.

In writing as in sport, focused, self-improving effort is laudable, even if it doesn’t lead directly to a remunerative career, if only because many successful people learned how to realize their aims initially through sport or art, even if they devoted their lives to something else.  Whether a young person actually becomes a professional writer or a professional athlete depends not only on talent and encouragement but on the discipline gained from both learning from masters and repeated practice—upon a process that, though begun in school, is necessarily continued outside and beyond it.  Don’t forget that the arts as a career are no less competitive than sports; so that if only one Little Leaguer becomes a professional baseball player, his team is remembered as more important that the others.  Another way in which art and sport resemble each other is that aspiring professionals necessarily do a lot of work for no pay.

Needless to say perhaps, the Waterways pedagogical principal can be extended to the visual arts with the creation of faculties not only to produce work but to display it; and I would encourage the development.  It already exists informally in popular music, because there are more ready venues, beginning with the street, available to aspiring musicians.  I’d personally like to see the Waterways principle extended to architecture, with young people learning to design before they build.

At the private “progressive elementary school” I attended in the East Village a half-century ago, one motto was “learning by doing,” which was a revolutionary assumption that has since been popularized.  That prime assumption was that a young person need not first master all that had been done before making his or her own creative work.  Individual initiative and accomplishment should be encouraged before any degrees or certificates are awarded.  A second assumption was that after a young person had done a little of something, whether writing or visual art, he or she would have more need, if not enthusiasm, to learn about the best previous work.  (From my own experience as both a writer and visual/musical artist I think this latter assumption is true.  It also applies to sport, where Mike Tyson for one learned early to collect films and videos of previous boxers.)

One publishing experiment I conducted a quarter-century ago was An Assembling, as we called it then.  Here we invited writers and artists whom we knew to be doing “otherwise unpublishable work” to contribute a thousand copies of whatever they wanted to include, and we bound their contributions alphabetically without discrimination.  The first assumption was that once writers and artists no longer felt impelled to “fit” a limiting format they would feel free to produce their best work.  Because the contributions were printed in alphabetical order, the publishers refused to say that one was necessarily ”better” or more deserving of attention than another.  Decisions about “quality” were left to the reader.  I feel that the sum of Waterways publications represents a kind of Assembling.

The best move a distribution agency could undertake now is make all Waterways publications available to every public library in New York City as a single display called, say, The Waterways Chapbooks—a receptacle into which young library patrons could dip, discovering writings by their peers, much as adults do among the shelves of adult books at the same library, incidentally learning the lifetime habit of selective reading.  In addition to finding that the Waterways publications in sum reflect the multicultural richness of New York City, I’m struck by the wide variety of subjects these young writers address.  My final sense of the “quality” of this work echoes my feelings toward Assembling, which is that the whole represents more than the sum of the parts, initially because the whole epitomizes the laudable values of freedom and opportunity that would not exist in a more selective procedure.