Saturday, August 21, 2010

Interview with David Biespiel

 Jumping in Pools is proud to present number 107 in our ongoing interview series. Today we are interviewing David Biespiel, who has been a professor at such universities as George Washington and Stanford. He also founded the Attic Writer's Workshop, and has contributed to the New Republic, Slate, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post. He is also a contributor for Politico which is where I saw his post the other day. Feel free to follow his Twitter profile. David also has the distinction of being only the second left-leaning individual we have interviewed for our site (the other being Yuriy Malikov, of course). We thank him for taking part in this interview!

   1. When and why did you start the Attic?

I founded the Attic in 1999. Originally it was a private studio for my writing. Over time, I took in some students. Those first creative writing classes had about a half dozen students. Today, we provide workshops and private consultations to over 400 writers a year. Today, the Attic is a nexus for a vibrant community of writers in Portland, where writers have developed literary friendships, seeded collaborations, writing groups, and magazine start-ups. Students have signed with publishers and agents, been accepted into residencies and graduate programs, embarked on literary businesses of their own, and simply become more connected to good writing and reading. We can't guarantee the whole gamut for everyone, but we can guarantee a personal focus on a writer's development as a writer, as well as the crafting of individual pieces.

    2. Do you have a favorite poem (or set of poems) that you have authored?

Tough question! I've published several books of poetry, the most recent, The Book of Men and Women was named Best Poetry of the Year by the Poetry Foundation. There's a poem in there, the final poem, I still like a great deal. It's called "The Theory of Hats". I have also just published a book for writers, Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, that I think will help writers and artists of all sorts break through obstacles and unleash their creativity.

    3. Has President Obama done a better or worse job than you expected or hoped?

Both, depends on your political point of view, of course. And on how you judge a president's performance, by what political rubric. Take the economy, long a rubric, rightly or wrongly. The economy is anemic. So if we're judging a president based on the GDP, on employment, on the size of the federal budget, then this president is in trouble. If the economy were humming along, then this president would be more popular. I don't think that's fair, necessarily, but it's not debatable either. The political parties use the economy to stimulate voter satisfaction or discontent--depending which party is in power and which in the minority. That's politics. Nothing to be done about that. Still, you got to run somebody against somebody, and when President Obama runs against the GOP nominee, I think we'll see a more pointed debate.

But to your question, better or worse. I think he's done better than I expected, even than I hoped, in some areas. For a 100 years no president of any party could move health care legislation with the size and scope of the new health care law. He did that. One by one, he is removing prisoners from Guantanamo. Day by day, he is drawing down American forces in Iraq. He almost single-handedly rescued the American automobile industry. The stimulus bill killed the American economic freefall. Now, if you're going to judge a president based on promises made in the campaign versus promises kept, stalled, in the works, compromised, or broken, then by any rational measurement Obama has done better, far better, than I would have expected or hoped. Have a look at this site,

Of the roughly 500 promises Obama made during the campaign, he has broken 22, compromised on 39, stalled out on 81, kept 121, and still working fulfilling about half of the 500, something like 240. That is to say, he has kept a full one-quarter of his promises, including requiring an economic justification for tax increases, establishing a credit card bill of rights, expanding loan programs for small businesses, closing the doughnut hole in Medicare prescription plans, required insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions and all children to have health insurance coverage, increased the Veteran's administration budget to include more mental health professionals for returning vets, and expanded Pell Grants to low-income students, to name only a fraction of a few.

If the election were held today, I'd vote to re-elect.

    4. How has the internet changed creative writing?

Note sure yet. If you consider the Comments section of nearly every website a "creative writing" experience, well, the Internet has expanded the zone of writing for most everyone from Zman242 to @johnmccain. I think the future of writing in the digital 2.0 era will include the use of books in app formats primarily (apps could be the "new" www) and of course in Kindle-like e-reader formats. What will be possible that is different from traditional books--and we will always have traditional paper and binding books--is the multi-media opportunities. Too much video, it'll be like the movies; too much text, it'll be like magazines; too much audio, it'll be like radio. But some unique, aesthetically arresting negotiation from the artist/s with text, video, audio could be the dawn of a new art form. That's interesting, no?

    5. Are there any national Republicans who you think are doing the right thing?

Right thing...about what? The question suggests I'm looking for Republicans who think like liberals. That breed of Republican is nearly impossible to locate--a whole generation even of centrist Republican Senators like Cranston or Bob Dole or the Chafees--is gone from national politics. California still has a few, like the current governor. I supported President Bush's attack of Afghanistan, but not Iraq. I supported the creation of the Homeland Security Department. I supported Lindsey Graham's work on climate change until the party forced him out of negotiations. That bill would not have been close to what I believe we should do, but he is a Republican with an interest in legislating.

Cut taxes and spend more on defense Republicans do not interest me. That's 90% of elected federal Republicans, or more, no? That kind of talk can not be taken seriously. Ronald Reagan raised taxes. He followed his huge 1981 tax cut with two large tax increases. In 1982, he rolled back corporate tax cuts that were in his 1981 cut and also rolled back cuts on individual taxes--in order to pragmatically meet budget projections. The 1982 roll backs undid about 1/3 of the 1981 tax cuts! As a share of GDP, in fact, Reagan's increases were greater than President Clintons's ten years later. In 1983, Reagan also increased the payroll tax to pay for Social Security and Medicare payments. As noted in the NY Times in 2004 about Reagan's tax cut/increase dance: "By 1988 the income tax share was down to 6.6 percent -- but the payroll tax share was up to 11.8 percent, and the combined burden was up, not down." Nonetheless, Reagan's military spending and other tax cuts trapped the nation in trillions of dollars of debt--as did George W. Bush's tax policies.

So cutting or increasing is not the issue--it's the combination of government action to stimulate private industry. The debate should not be between too much or too little government, but the type and measurement of the government catalyst. That would be a serious debate. Show me the Republican national leader who is invested in that. No, I don't see one either. That would be the "right thing."

    6. What is the best part about writing for Politico?

The give and take, for sure. I'm a smiling liberal on that page, and as much as I almost instinctively disagree with nearly all of what, say, Grover Norquist says, debating him nearly every day makes realize that Grover is a smart man. Funny, too. I've developed professional friendships with some of my liberal peers. But surprisingly I'm especially close to a few of my conservative opponents. I think that's because we have maintained a civil, friendly rivalry of ideas. That's what Arena has always been able on Politico. Fred Barbash, David Mark, and Seung Min Kim, the editors or former editor, maintain high standards of civility, graciousness, thoroughness, experience, and honest engagement. The rote partisans, the talking points party hacks (and there are some on the Arena page, for sure) are dull, dull-minded, and comical. Most of the others offer insight and honest analysis. I like that. It's refreshing.

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