I’ve always been jealous as hell of Steven Dunn.
Ever since he started coming to the readings a few years ago. He’s got this really grounded and cool stage presence. His shit’s about serious things but funny. I remember this one where he imagines writing a fantasy novel about elves or something, which is actually an allegory for racial injustice, and the white audience loves it cuz it’s not threatening to them in that form, and the black audience hates it cuz it’s not literal enough about real issues. FUCK, it made me think, not only is he making me take a necessary hard look at my whiteness and racial complacency, but I can’t write better than this, and I love thinking I can write better than other people.
Comparing. Envy. Who is better than whom. It’s fucked up.
We’re always cordial and cool with each other. I mean Steven’s so humble and friendly, it’s not like you can’t like him. But I didn’t read his first book Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky 2016) cuz it just made me think about how my novel had been taking over a decade to write and was a longshot to get published anyway.
Feeling superior to everyone and inferior to everyone at the same time. Fucked up.
He’s been achieving things I haven’t: Reputable press Tarpaulin Sky. High profile readings and panel invitations. Teaching gigs. Many Facebook likes and comments. They’re making a movie of his book. Yeah…
How dare he?! Zero sum. His success is my failure. Fucked. Up.
But I still do it. Do you?
The best thing that’s happened to me was finally self-publishing my book. Not because of any success or attention it’s receiving, but its irrelevance is actually helping me realize how little any of this really matters. Or that the 5 people, including myself, who actually read it all the way thru and enjoyed it is actually all that matters.
Cut-throat ambitions, who deserves what, eeego attachments. None of it ever really serves me, it just cause me to suffer, and it’s been an obstacle to connecting with potentially great work like Steven Dunn’s. Recently I decided to forget I’m a ‘writer’ and think of myself more as a person who happens to write and was really put on this Earth to grow up. And thinking like that allowed me to at least read Steven’s new novel Water & Power (Tarpaulin Sky 2018).
It’s a book about the Navy. Steven was enlisted for like 10 years and has collected his personal and researched observations into an ethnography, or study of a culture. I don’t know shit about it’s like to be a soldier, and the book was satisfying just on an information level.
It’s mostly straightforward prose with simple, direct language, “I can’t sleep. The guy above me is snoring.” But the structure is unconventional, with no clear linear storyline or narrator guiding you thru. In true anthropological fashion, we’re given interviews, observations, and field notes. The pieces, which also include images of old fashioned recruiting ads and an extensive list of civilian casualties from our country’s recent Middle East adventures, tie together more thematically and create discomforting juxtapositions and mood.
I’m most drawn to what I assume to be Steven’s personal experiences, like getting babysat by other soldiers in Japan because he got back late from a one night stand – “Wherever they go I’m supposed to go. Which means for the rest of the week I eat at Hard Rock, KFC, Pizza Hut,” or returning home to West Virginia and being misunderstood by the people there – “You don’t like shooting motherfuckas and blowing shit up? – Nope.” The voice is so effortless and natural, and tho never too openly emotional, you can tell there’s a big, sensitive heart underlying it, which really contrasts with the cold, social-scientific tone of the surrounding pieces.
But the point of Water & Power is really to challenge its audience, exposing a toxic culture ingrained with disturbing examples of sex and violence, which may not be so far off from our mainstream culture. The writing is never openly critical with heavy-handed ranting or anything, instead cooly and academically laying out the facts, from which the audience can draw their own conclusions. I don’t know that I enjoy reading things like this, but if it helps me in any small way be more aware of unjust social structures and institutions and more compassionate to those who suffer from them, then it was probably necessary.
Don’t think I’m saying I’ve transcended the concept of jealousy at all, but I’m glad I was able to temporarily shift to a less fucked-up mindset and read this work. A couple months ago Steven and I swapped books at our joint FBomb feature, and I inscribed something like, “You deserve all your success.” It was meant to be encouraging (assuming we all have a tinge of imposter syndrome), but also a way of claiming to myself that I should put my bullshit aside. It is also the truth. After reading Water & Power I can confirm that Steven Dunn is very fucking good at what he does, and we all just hafta deal with that.
Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is editor-in-chief of Boulder Poetry Tribe. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The author of Pizzas and Mermaid, Taxis & Shit, and brand new novel The Reality Traveler, he lives in Boulder and teaches English at Front Range Community College. You can read more of his creative work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com