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Is there a "herd mentality" in the new Buffalo anthology?

As is the case with regional art exhibitions, regional compilations of writing are often burdened with the expectation of making some aggregate or representative statement about the community they are drawn from. Just as regionally based speakers share a common dialect, it seems reasonable to suggest that geographical proximity might have some influence on the aesthetics or sensibility of a literary voice.   


Is there a literary perspective distinct to Buffalo or a set of attributes characteristic of a Buffalo writing style? Voices from the Herd: An Anthology for Buffalo, NY, edited by local writers Cindy Mantai, Alicia Ripley and Tom Waters for Doubt It Publishing, is the latest anthology of Buffalo-based writing to raise this issue, if not to resolve it.  


How one begins to approach this question depends on what part of the city you visit and whose writing you read. Lauren Belfer's Pan-American Exposition-era Buffalo in City of Light is not the same as Gary Earl Ross' account of the contemporaneous city in his novel Blackbird Rising. The churches and taverns of Tim Russert's South Buffalo of the 1950s and 1960s seem more than a decade and twenty-five miles away from the small town gothics of Joyce Carol Oates's fictionalized versions of her native Millersport on the Erie-Niagara County border.


Ishmael Reed and the late Lucille Clifton grew up in the same neighborhood on Buffalo's East Side and were childhood friends who remained close throughout their distinguished respective careers. You would have to dig deep into Reed's brilliant, often-caustic, satirical prose, however, to find similarities with Clifton's holistic, woman-centered incorporation of African-American idiomatic speech into a late modernist poetics.  Even two leading Buffalo bred writer-activists of different generations but both noted for their focus on working-class issues and associations with the labor movement -- playwright Manny Fried and poet Mark Nowak -- couldn't be further apart aesthetically. 


And to complicate matters further, all these versions of Buffalo differ markedly from two critically acclaimed recent fictionalized depictions of the city: the Elmwood Village and West Side of the 1990s in Greg Ames' Buffalo Lockjaw and Charles Baxter's elliptical flashback to the strange nexus of cultural forces that made Buffalo one of the birthplaces of postmodernism and the erstwhile home of the American literary avant-garde in the late 1960s and '70s in the first half of his novel The Soul Thief.


Voices from the Herd, to be sure, does not even claim to be representative or inclusive in its sampling of local voices, and it mercifully contains no long-winded introduction to say as much. What is curious about the book is the implicit dedication of its title: the editors elect to call it an anthology "for" Buffalo, not "of" or even "by" its various writers. The phrasing suggests that the book is a gift, although we are uncertain of the occasion.


Given the preponderance of various poetry compilations that originate from the Buffalo area each year, the editors wisely opted to incorporate a range of popular contemporary writing genres. Voices from the Herd is comprised of three distinct sections of approximately equivalent size. The first section features ten pieces of shorter "flash" fiction; the second, ten nonfiction essays and personal vignettes of roughly feature article length; and the third, twenty-three poems of various lengths and forms.


In nearly all the pieces in the anthology, the shared Buffalo setting or "aboutness" is foregrounded.  There are explicit landmarks and local references the reader will be able identify with.  While this constraint is far from arbitrary, the pieces are too short and disparate for the city to emerge as a distinct unifying "character" of their collective narrative, in the way a city might in a classic novel.  What does emerge as a constant in nearly all these pieces is a sense of Buffalo's past that is more vivid than its present.  This is a city where ghosts wander about perhaps a little too freely: they step into the path of our present day traffic, take seats at our board room tables, obscure what we see when we gaze into our mirrors. 


The first three stories in the flash fiction section set the tone for where the anthology is headed as a whole.  In "The Butter Lamb" Sadie Worth recounts a tale of a pre-adolescent girl visiting the Broadway Market at its heyday during the traditional Catholic Holy Week.  In Stephanie Haefner's "A Shea's Dream," a woman attending a performance of Chicago at Shea's Theater enters into a waking daydream and finds herself suddenly at center stage "transported back to a simpler time when a song and dance was considered quality entertainment."


Moving beyond nostalgia, Diane Meholick's 'Waiting for William" takes to us Buffalo's Central Terminal, a place where the ghosts of the past intermingle with the homeless occupants of its recent history.  However fleetingly, romance, and even self-discovery seem possible.  A darker, more absurdist view of that former hub of Buffalo's past grandeur occurs in Paul Rehac's "A Chance," a Samuel Beckett-like tale in which four superannuated Buffalo sports fans inhabit some kind of netherworld in the shell of the former terminal, where they play never-ending card games while watching Bills and Sabres highlights on an analog television with rabbit-ears.  "The distance between Buffalo and purgatory is strictly metaphysical," one of the card players intones "with no hint of bitterness." Or much of a sense of irony, as Rehac implies.


The sangfroid of a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, blue collar town where the bars used to stay open until 4 a.m., and the tawdry lure of the "Canadian Ballet" just across the border constitutes a rite-of-passage for male dead-enders from generation to generation gets both its expression and its comeuppance in George Tutuska's "Triple Crown," a story whose twist speaks to the foundering desperation of young and not-so-young men in a town whose glory days are a distant memory.


If the flash fiction selections tend to portray Buffalo as the city looming in the rear view mirror, the non-fiction prose pieces by and large take a less sentimentalized view of the city as it is, and for the most part conclude in the words of co-editor and contributor Tom Waters, "it could be worse."  While the idea of including nonfiction prose in the anthology might have seemed a good one -- "creative non-fiction" is the "growth" area of the creative writing profession -- the disparity of the approaches makes for some unusual juxtapositions.  Alongside the litany of good-natured complaints in "McKinleys and Mad Hamburgers" -- Waters's colorful, if somewhat dyspeptic, rant -- are pieces on the Bills and the former Memorial Auditorium that are competently written, but have a dated and somewhat gratuitous feel in this context. 


Worth noting, however, is a remarkable essay "Queen City Meets Marjan" by Billy Mariani, in which the author, back from a sixteen month tour-of-duty in Afghanistan, remarks on the similarities and differences between his hometown and the area of Eastern Afghanistan where he was stationed.  It's a wonderfully paced, eye-opening piece of writing that manages to say insightful things about both Buffalo and the parts of Afghanistan Mariani has seen.   Who knew, for instance, that there is a Tim Horton's in Kandahar?


Buffalo is, when all else fails, a city of "big weather" and decisive seasonal changes.  Judith Frizlen's  "What I Saw on Nature Walks Around Hoyt Lake" is a journal from midsummer of  2004 to midsummer of 2005 that is the single longest piece in the collection, but keenly-observed enough to leave you wanting more. 


Despite its general population decline, Buffalo remains one of the most active poetry communities per capita of any city in North America.  That community is well-represented in Voices from the Herd, which captures some of this area's finest poets stretching out their repertoire in unusual ways.  Karen Lee Lewis and Perry Nicholas--two of the Buffalo area's better known poets who also teach writing--contribute poems that are grittier and more street-savvy than their more widely circulated work.


Marina Blitshteyn and Sara Ries, two of the area's most promising young voices, weigh in here with poems that speak to the city they still call home, while Jennifer Campbell, one of the co-editors of Earth's Daughters offers a poem about living in a 150 year old house that has made her and her husband the involuntary curators of its century and a half of stories. 


Peter Fernbach, in a poem about a cracked monument in Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery, perceives an indignity, and pens a few lines of mourning that could well serve as the dedication to the entire anthology: 


For it’s a wound made of absence.

A want that can’t be filled

We love you for want of your presence.


If there is one thing conspicuously absent from the anthology, it would be the lack of a strong voice (or multiple voices) telling us what it might be like to grow up Black or Hispanic in Buffalo.  The collection features a wide range of writers from different backgrounds and walks of life, but none that reference the landmarks of Buffalo's African-American neighborhoods, the legacy of Buffalo as one of the terminus points of the Underground Railroad, or name checks the clubs on Buffalo's East Side that were regular stops on the jazz circuit.


All editors and anthologists are necessarily at the mercy of the quality and variety of the manuscripts they receive in response to their call for submissions, but one would hope that the editors of such projects in the future would reach out to all segments of the community for a richer and more inclusive mix of voices. The best possible outcome of such an anthology project, after all, would be to learn new things about the city we thought we already knew. 


Voices from the Herd is available from the Buffalo Anthology Project for $12.99 for the trade paperback edition and $4.99 for direct download. 


-- R.D. Pohl



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