Wednesday, October 7, 2015

#literatureasexhaustion: Thomas Larson on Riley Hanick on Kerouac & Pollock & the Interstate highway system &...

Around 1910, Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian artist, began a revolution in seeing by finishing the first abstract paintings in Europe, though the Navajo, the Chinese, and the Muslims had been making design art for centuries. It took a few years before he quit portraying mountains and horses’ heads and drew, instead, a phantasmagoria of floating and cellularly busy flat forms. The surprise was that Kandinsky’s subjectless swirls and smudges, lines and dots, said something, despite not representing recognizable images like peasants or churches. Voila, as he’d intended, form in itself was rapturously beautiful. As if the Western eye knew all along that a triangle and a splotch, when layered on canvas, would animate the space like geometric ballet. Why had we avoided the disjunctive so long in art?

Writers have been jealous ever since. We, too, have wanted to dispossess ourselves of subject, push the language arts beyond their referential-bound or plot-driven limits. (Joyce’s Ulysses is an enduring struggle, a crucifixion of sorts.) The disjunctive for writers is not easy: language cannot just unbridle itself of its associative or grammatical qualities. Noam Chomsky has shown us why with his rendition, “Colorless green ideas sleep fitfully.” It’s a prickishly logical sentence minus the sense, though the tension between its sound and syntax renders its poetic affability. How odd, how marvelous, that our grammar can convey such illogic allure.

One solution has been to fragment prose, a way to crack the narrative crystal. For twenty-first-century readers it’s a commonplace whether rendered in short, easily passable paragraphs, the accretive form (Maggie Nelson), or in the ever-changing, sentence-by-sentence pointillism, the aphoristic style (Emil Cioran). Most of the fragmentists hew to some form of narration. But new in the experimental nonfiction groove from Sarah Gorham’s redoubtable Sarabande Books is Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion. Hanick presents a daringly discontinuous narrative that’s tempest-tossed, its guy wires popping, a spectacle of self-subversion. A book very hard to limn.

No writer, save Gertrude Stein—a page performer whose hijinks I find unabsorbing, even trite—has pushed the epistemological question of abstraction in nonfiction as volatilely as Hanick has. His much-assembly-required tale features a sliced-up narrative, trumpeting the mashup aesthetic louder than anything I’ve read. It’s alternately brilliant, show-offy, nerve-wracking, a touch inebriated—and deserving of a long going-over if largely for those (of us) stalwarts who love to wrestle with the nonfictional, randomized mosaic.

Hanick’s three motions are the three subjects or conveyances he zigzags through and around: 1) Jackson Pollock’s very large painting, Mural (1943), commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim and hung in her home in New York, later given to the University of Iowa Art Museum where Hanick beholds it, beside 2) the typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road on tour and display at the same museum where Hanick also beholds it (I can’t quite figure if he was security, charged with guarding the painting or the scroll, or a writer-in-residence), and nearby to most of us, 3) the Interstate highway system, built during (and epitomizing) the Eisenhower administration, whose auto stream, according to an early traffic planner, is “an integral part of the American spirit—freedom of movement.” This trio—Pollock’s paintball forms stampeding across big canvases, Kerouac’s methedrine-fueled, single-paged autobiographical novel, and an America that runs across itself (away from and to itself) by car—triggers Hanick’s quixotic wanderlust.

Some parts of the book are straight-ahead, focused on the stars, Jack and Jack:

The work of the Beats occasioned famously negative reactions from older and more esteemed writers. Not writing but typing, Capote said of On the Road. Not writing but plumbing, Beckett said of Burroughs and the cut-up method. The value of a dismissal is its brevity, the ease of its acerbic click. Appears to have been painted with a broom, reads an early review of Pollock’s. 

And, with dates like mileage markers, the highway theme keeps returning in its own broken bits:

1909. In late January the Automobil-Verkehrs-und-Übungsstrasse is founded in Berlin. A track consisting of two lanes, each either meters wide with a nine-meter median strip, was funded not by the government but almost exclusively by a combination of financial and racing organizations. Within three years they will begin the construction of a nearly ten-kilometer road that is significant for being completely devoid of intersections. 

One attempt at tack here is to counter descriptions: the continent-wide monotony of the Interstate grid against the whirling dervish dancing of the Beats and the action painters. These subjects surprise each other continually and, at first, create momentum. But quickly the opposite happens. There’s a strange feeling of anti-momentum surging in. Hanick seems to grow tired of, even peevish with, the explanatory: he continually fragments the text and develops impressionistic and surreal bits. You can feel him insisting on this form. You can feel him foiling any accretion of plot, a method once Zenfully described by the minimalist composer Terry Riley: “One need not push ahead to create interest.” Hanick:

Doubts about getting anywhere as one way to remain at work. Enlisting the viscera another. Increase is a line relying on limit. Put otherwise: What would it mean to be so wrong that you could come to feel wrong enough? To be so lost into what you thought you were doing, so concentrated in your incomprehension, so nearly blind to your hand that no single thing that watches you will ever adequately appreciate your fear? Both Pollock and Kerouac chose a medium—the Novel, the Enormous Oil Painting—that had come to hold itself in the highest regard. This helped inform their particular desperations. 

Thus, the massive double-lane, coming-and-going American roadway is nothing like a novel on a scroll or a picture painted on the floor. It is neither random nor organic: it is planned, solid, socially engineered, not individually executed. The road itself is the opposite of the life-in-flux of two notorious Jacks. This dichotomy between person and system and its resistance to mixing surprised me. I noticed sooner than later that Hanick’s not talking about cars as conduits; he’s writing an ode to concrete—as if the asphalt mimics Kerouac’s conveyor belt or Pollock’s slopping-it-on. Once I noted how much mutation there is in all this traversing and Pogo-sticking about, I couldn’t stuff the feathers back into the pillow. Motions in conflict (the title’s promise) never come together as a subject, a directive, a smithy. Purposeless purpose eludes him.

And yet the hyper-fragmentary form feels well suited for these freeway dashes. I just wish I could name, beyond the throw-of-the-dice arrangement, the end he seeks, beyond a mischievous performance. For instance, in the chapter “Slotted Mailbox, Telephone Pole,” Hanick begins by describing Pollock getting a job as a stonecutter in New York, “cleaning bird shit from a statue of Peter Cooper.” Next, he serves up the “time-gap experience,” about the eyes going blank, losing time, losing memory, and since nothing happens, the moment is unrecallable. When time and sense return, the subject “cannot name the thing it was wandering in.” This is like the “experience” of driving the Interstate.

Yes, but then Hanick gets loopy:

Because we are so quintessentially there and not as we glide in the eye of the highway, we are banal. . . . Thus, the highway is memory unstrung, the harbor lights appearing and immediately inconsequential. Teaching us how to be anxious and drifting at once, showing us a marbling of countercurrents. We go there to forge a thinking that is quick and lackadaisical, as impossible to touch as it is to set aside. 

I get the gist but much here is slippery, vacuous. How do lights become inconsequential? If we have a time-gap, how are we “anxious and drifting”? (It’s actually a good descriptor of Hanick’s style.) “We go there . . . .” We do? Not if we don’t have to we don’t. “Quick and lackadaisical” thinking forges marbled countercurrents? I thought we were prone to space out. We can neither touch it nor set it aside? Huh? is the interjection I write in many a margin.

This chapter grinds on, pinging between oddity and longshot association: letters from imagined women (maybe Peggy Guggenheim, maybe wives or ex-wives) to “JK” and “Jack,” basted with erotic titter; more paean to pavement (measuring “a continent’s geological knowledge of itself” and revealing “a set of insights opened and remained among the unplanned consequences of the highway”); then more off-ramps: Pollock telling stories to Thomas Hart Benton’s son, Eisenhower’s churched Kansas family, Ike being talked into authorizing a coup in Guatemala; plus, a 1957 dedication ceremony in Wisconsin for I-94; and this: "Art may or may not be a word we need to endorse a pleasure that makes us feel complicated."

Yes, my list is plucked, petal-like, from this bouncy/rubbery chapter. But I hope the citations show Hanick’s collision aesthetic. That he’s baffling us (and himself) on purpose, perhaps. Its arbitrariness, its leaves-blown-by-the-leaf-blower-only-to-settle-back-to-another-nearby-random-shape. And that my mounting frustration occurs in the essay’s muddled middle (but where else could it go? not at the start and not at the end). Whereas the opening third of the book is so promisingly wild and coherent, I kept reading until I didn’t. I flagged. Then the fish, from its wiggling, fell off the hook.

In the home-stretch of the book, and much the blearier, I got re-attached to a congealing subject. The Iowa Museum of Art and its holdings, including Mural, were evacuated in a June 2008 Iowa River flood. (The only half-wet museum did not qualify for FEMA aid: It “was now a space that had failed to even be properly ruined.”) At last, some direction recurs. Using the memoirist’s “I,” Hanick tunnels into the museum staff’s discussion whether to sell Mural once it’s appraised at $140 million (one private offer comes in at $175 million). Their collective determination says no. Never sell. Instead, raise funds by sending the 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas on tour. Hanick’s participation with the present-day political/financial life of the painting pops awake what has so often been a desultory book, blunting favorably, if late in the game, his scissors-slicing style.

Hanick’s a discontented writer. Plus, there’s a sense of him sentencing us, his readers, to hard labor. (Any Twitter trends like #literatureastask or #literatureasexhaustion?) I find nothing sinister in his style. It’s something else. Because Hanick’s so enthralled with his bricolage—and despite my own eerie fascination with Pollock, the most Minotaurish of the abstractionists (after installing Mural in Guggenheim’s New York home, he celebrated by peeing into her fireplace)—I feel like a looky-loo, watching Hanick write, not unlike watching Pollock paint. John Updike once said, “Pollock painting is the subject of Pollock’s paintings.” Through it all, like an Interstate driver, I’m a passerby, ever rolling on and away.

What’s more, the book suffers from an inconsistent inconsistency. It should be obvious that consistency and inconsistency, one instead of the other, moves us down the road. But when the way forward is inconsistently inconsistent—extreme mood swings; passages of history or fact buddied up beside dizzyingly vague or flippant statements—there’s trouble. Consider another petal-pluck:

We would like most to be drizzled aluminum, to be useful and blind like a flashbulb. Expertly kept from ourselves and arriving into shining tatters by an anonymous fawning. When you’re telling that joke, don’t make it sound like a script. Spontaneity is the wish for perpetual departure. The rhythm of its dream is one and one and one and one

What’s the puzzle this deviously splintering book was created for and written to solve?

Once this question appeared—and I was glad that Hanick lanced its boil—I left off the tale to think about the relative stability of prose narrative. Paintings and photographs are frozen in time; the question of movement, continuous or not, is moot. (Architecture may be solid but its three-dimensionality invites our participation.) Film like music moves by unfurling in its own set time. Prose, like baseball, is burdensomely slow. It’s supposed to be slow, which is why we judge good prose by the degree to which it agitates itself out of its doldrums—whether it culminates, whether it turns characters convincingly, whether its ideas dock in strange, new ports and stay awhile, whether it collects and expiates emotions.

Prose requires comradely devotion because we can’t read a bit and quit as we can poetry. Prose is like an aging relative who placed in a nursing home lives on for another ten years and whose long-term undying must be attended to. Prose asks us to forgive its staying over, beyond the weekend. Prose insists we—and its author—make a good-faith effort to stick around, to partner.

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader, now its Critic-At-Large, and Book Reviews editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is

Monday, October 5, 2015

On Form Fashioning Content: Patrick Madden in conversation with Jill Talbot

For this past AWP conference (Minneapolis, April 2015), I was to present on a panel about “‘Fashioning a Text’: Discovering Form and Shape in Literary Nonfiction” with Michael Steinberg, Elyssa East, Michael Downs, and Robert Root. The general idea was that, even though we write from factual experience, we often find our form in the process of writing, sometimes despite our initial plans. This describes my most common method of writing, in which I begin with a question and write to discover both wisdom and form. But I decided to engage my contrarian instinct instead of writing the paper I expected, and I thought about how some writers (myself included) sometimes begin with a form, then fit their subject matter to it. Never one to speak only about my own experiences, I decided to interview several writers who had borrowed and modified other forms to make their essays. Among the writers I emailed were Joey Franklin, Dinty Moore, Ander Monson, Caitlin Horrocks, Desirae Matherly, Michael Martone, Eula Biss, and Jill Talbot, who wrote a powerful essay in the form of a college syllabus. Because of the compressed format of an AWP talk, I could only use a fraction of anybody’s insightful responses, so I’m glad that Essay Daily can present Jill’s replies in full.

                   — Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden: Which came first, the story or the form? I mean, did you want to write a "college syllabus" essay and then found the material for it? Or did you have your basic idea and then hit on the right form to contain it? How did it all come about?

Jill Talbot: I was teaching a course on the New American West, and we were in the middle of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I wrote my dissertation on Kerouac’s road narrative influence, but I hadn’t re-read the novel since I was in my twenties, when I was raging against accountability and responsibility and lusting after any man who did the same. You know the scene in Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield talks about the museum?: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times . . . . The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all.” That semester, my daughter had just turned nine and was beginning to ask questions about her father, Kenny, the man who ran off for different roads and different women when she was an infant, and for the first time, I read that novel not in admiration of the crazed search for “It,” but as one of the women that men like Sal and Dean leave behind. It changed the way I taught the novel—not as a non-conformist, manic, road-as-life manifesto, but as a glimpse into the doorways where women waited for men to come back, already knowing they wouldn’t.

So I began to wonder how much Kenny had influenced and altered what I read and how and why—but more importantly, why I taught certain texts over others. I started looking through previous semesters, and it was clear how I had been teaching nothing beyond my own heart and its rupture. One syllabus in particular, an American Literature II one, in which I used an anthology but made very specific selections—each one echoing a moment I shared with Kenny (he loved Raymond Carver poems) or an experience I had because of his leaving.

I copy and pasted that semester’s reading schedule into a new document and started filling in the gaps that were on the page (but not in my mind). I annotated each text—put my own story, I suppose, beneath each author and title. It began as a test (Is he really in every one of these? Can I pull this thread through every last one? Answer: Yes.) That came first and then I thought how my persona was a professor, so she better teach, which is why most selections have both the professional and the personal, but ultimately, the persona (self) deconstructs, and she can’t bring herself to discuss certain texts or lines out loud. In fact, this explains the crossed out On the Road Part I on the syllabus and the exchange for Sherman Alexie because that semester in my New American West class, we followed Kerouac with Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (you’ll notice the conflation of that semester with previous ones—which happens to any of us who teach—we teach in a chamber of echoes—those students and questions and conversations that came before). I’d stand in class teaching Alexie, and I couldn’t bear to read those questions I had underlined out loud when I held my book, but I wanted to know the answers. And as the essay is an interrogatory form, Alexie’s questions were at “The Professor of Longing”'s core: "How do you talk to the real person whose ghost has haunted you? How do you tell the difference between the two?”

Back in my office, working on the syllabus draft, I recognized that I had been bringing Kenny’s ghost into every class. I was “teaching” it—though there’s no way for my students to know that. I wanted the syllabus essay to speak to that universality—the common experience of teaching works we love—we’re embedded in them somehow, and they’re in us, so we’re invariably teaching palimpsests (which is how I think of the syllabus essay—the text of my history with Kenny beneath the texts of the syllabus). It’s impossible to escape your loss and your longings when you teach them, semester after semester. The essay allowed me to put my grief and longing and lostness—what had always been beneath the surface of the syllabus—in it.

PM: What difficulties did you find (in writing, revising, or in publishing) because you chose a non-standard or borrowed form? Did you ever feel constrained by the form you chose? And/or did the form free you or inspire you to write something different from your other (standard-form) work?

JT: Experimental forms confine and expand concurrently—so while I had parameters and the required elements of the syllabus form, I was also forced to interrogate familiar material in a new way.

PM: Have you ever failed at writing an experimental form? Revised your experimental-formed work back into a standard form?

JT: I think all writers begin with some form of scaffolding they eventually lose after understanding it helped the essay find its way, and I’m no different. I see it in workshop all the time—that what helps build the essay ends up falling away.

When I set out to do a borrowed form or hermit crab essay, I begin thinking how the form and the content are in conversation or competition. For example, the enumerated essay, which I’m seeing more and more of, is most successful and interesting when the content relates a concept or a memory that defies order. Justin Daugherty’s “A History of Loneliness in 23 Acts (of Love)” (The Normal School) offers no answers, only questions, a search—the logic of enumeration works against the lack of logic in the persona’s interrogations. I love when that happens.

But back to standard versus experimental form: I have an essay in the form of wine list, for example, an essay about a time when I chose wine over Kenny and how that affected our relationship. The list allowed me to emphasize that wine was the center of everything, so it’s the main feature on the page—everything else (us) is in small print, so to speak. I also use the absences (some wines on the list are not followed by text) to speak to the distance between us, what we were keeping to ourselves. [That essay is in Issue 10 (Spring 2014) of PANK and in The Way We Weren’t, by the way.] In the same way, the syllabus essay has those two texts in conversation and in juxtaposition—the assigned texts and the personal ones, the public persona and the private self.

I don’t think you can only write experimental form or standard form—some essays don’t need to play—sometimes you need to let the story stand. But for some essayists, like me, there comes a time when I need to take off the training wheels and fly down the hill, leaving all the streets I’ve known behind. And as a reader of the experimental essay, it’s like playing Follow the Leader, racing down the hill after that bold essayist knowing I’m being shown a path no one has ever ridden, and I shout into the wind: “Very cool.”

Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, co-editor of After Montaigne, and co-translator of the Selected Poems of Eduardo Milán. He teaches at Brigham Young University and curates

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. She co-edited The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together and edited Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and listed in the Notable Essays section of Best American Essays 2014. She is also the nonfiction editor for BOAAT Press.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Megan Kimble on improv, umwelt, and getting unstuck

On the first day of Improv 101, our instructor Cory asked each of us to share why we were taking an improv class. Public speaking, quicker thinking, better communicating, we said. I said, because I feel stuck. I’d just published a book—my first book!—and while this is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me, I also now feel drained, empty, and out of ideas, clueless about what comes next. I’ve started getting up early in the morning to write, but mostly that has meant staring at a white screen or pattering on about an item of clothing or a “time that I” in response to a writing prompt. I am young, and I know it’s fine to be stuck, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable.

So I’m taking an improv class. Yesterday, we had to get on stage and co-tell a story with a partner, each contributing only one word at a time. I say, “It”—she says, “was”—I say, “rainy”—she says, “today. “It”—“was”—“hard”—“to”—“get”—“around”—“through”—“all”—“the”—“people.”

It reminds me of Annie Lamont’s famous advice to take it bird by bird. (“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”)

Bird by bird, word by word, and something will emerge. It might be a weather-based traffic report—rain makes people terrible drivers!—but it also might be something you’d never expected, as with the improv pair who somehow ended up dealing with a limb-eating lawn mower run amok.

I like that part of it, the “somehow ended up,” because that’s so often how writing (and all the activity that surrounds writing) feels to me. I somehow ended up spending a year eating only unprocessed food—food that I theoretically could make at home—and exploring how it is that we process food, both industrially and locally. Even after so many people have asked what made you give up processed foods in the first place? I still sometimes want to say, “I’m not sure; I somehow ended up here”—which is not really the right answer in an interview.

What has been hard for me is that improv unfolds out of a group mind and our group consists of a wide variety of strangers. On the first day of class, we did a silent “energy movement” exercise—one walking person had the energy, which they could transfer to one of us frozen people through eye contact. It went okay, I guess, but it seemed disjointed. People were jumpy, or nonresponsive, and I had to stifle my impulse to control, had to quiet the thought—you guys, you’re not doing it right! But of course, we are not doing it right and actually, there is no right; there is only energy, bouncing around a group of people—through a piece of work—and it is the energy that stops or starts, not us.

The basic premise of improv is “yes, and.” Agree with your partner—accept the scene, the premise, the statement. And then build upon it—create consequences, emotions, or details. Yes, indeed—we are on the moon. And I’m really bummed that we forgot all our food on Earth. Yes, sure—our characters are over-caffeinated firefighters? Okay, fine—and let’s spend the night painting the firehouse.


As I work to get unstuck, I’m taking my dog on a lot of long walks. Phoebe is 11 months old; she is my first dog. She spent two weeks with my parents in California this summer when I was book touring, and they nicknamed her the adorable tornado. The adorable tornado follows me around the house. The adorable tornado comes to work with me. The adorable tornado likes to eat thumbtacks.

Because even adorable tornados need training, I’ve been reading a lot about dogs. I first encountered the idea of umwelt in Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog. She writes: “The scientific study of animals was changed by a German biologist of the early twentieth century named Jakob von Uexkull. What he proposed was revolutionary: anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt (OOM-velt): their subjective or ‘self-world.’ Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

She continues: “If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… All animals have their own umwelten—their own subjective realities, what von Uexkull thought of as ‘soap bubbles’ with them forever caught in the middle. We humans are enclosed in our own soap bubbles, too.”

And so I’ve been also thinking a lot about umwelt, in dogs and improv; in writing and editing; in relationships and friendships and the quiet spaces between them.

Although I’m anthropomorphizing the very idea of umwelt, it feels like a similar and perhaps similarly valuable lesson as “yes, and.” You can only interact meaningfully with an animal or person when you accept what they’re capable of perceiving—when you climb into the soap bubble together and look through the watery lens.

Our homework assignment this week is to try to use the “yes and” philosophy in our everyday lives: “This could occur at work, at school, with family, friends or a significant other,” writes instructor Cory. “Note a time when you would normally say no to a suggestion from another person. Instead ‘yes and’ the situation and see what happens.”

In many ways, being an editor—which is what I do when I’m not writing about food or training my puppy—requires a total submission to umwelt, to “yes, and.” What is this essay or article trying to say or do or be? And how can I make that intention more clear? Only once I engage with it on its own terms—nose-to-the-ground, tail-wagging-high—can I do anything to help sculpt and transform a piece of writing into the best, clearest, most specific version of itself. What’s the point, and what kind of soap bubble does it live in?

And yet, in the early morning light, as I patter on my keyboard, I try to get comfortable in the moment before you can know any of that, anything about what’s going to get said and who’s going to show up. I’m trying to do the doing. “You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing,” writes improv queen Amy Poehler in her memoir Yes Please.

And so, too, with Phoebe. “In a non-verbal way, dogs know who we are, they know what we do, and they know some things about us unknown to ourselves,” writes Horowitz. “Over and above that, how we act defines who we are.”

It’s funny to me that my dog knows me through my habits—how I meander about the house or rush to work or delay going to the gym. How I cook or sleep or shower. Without language to explain, for a dog, how we act defines who we are. It is so simple and yet incredibly non-obvious in our human interactions, as we discuss, review, and rationalize. And yet during the silent movement around a room—in the transfer of energy; in the negotiations of a relationship or the promises of a friendship—how we act defines who we are.

So I guess I’m finding that the point of taking improv—getting a dog, writing a book—is that we find the things unknown to ourselves through the doing. “Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being,” writes Poehler. “If you can surf your life rather than plant your feet, you will be happier.”

So I lie down next to my little dog and look at the world from the floor. I get on stage and wonder, word by word, what will emerge.  

Megan Kimble is the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food. She lives and writes in Tucson, where she works as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Visit

Monday, September 28, 2015

Plastic is All of Us: An Interview with Allison Cobb

Essay Press’s EP series showcases excerpts from new book-length projects by contemporary authors. Plastic, an autobiography, by Allison Cobb is part of this digital series, all of which are free downloads.


MA: In Plastic, an autobiography, I was especially drawn to the section describing Shed Bird, the albatross living outside an old Coast Guard shed. This bird died a slow death because of all the plastic it ingested, over 500 pieces. What made you want to include Shed Bird?

AC: The violence and suffering is what draws me to the topic in the first place and motivates me to uncover the connections. The photographer Susan Middleton took the photo, which helped bring attention to the harms plastic can cause after it leaves our hands. The system of global capitalism is set up to occlude those interconnections—to erase from view the toll it takes to supply people in wealthy nations with a constant stream of goods and services. I want to make that violence real for people, and concrete.

MA: What was the biggest challenge in writing Plastic? What came easiest?

AC: The biggest challenge was time. A research-driven project requires sustained time that is hard to come by with a full-time job. I actually turned away from this manuscript for the past year and wrote a manuscript of poems instead. I think I just needed to be able to finish something of a less demanding duration. Also, I guess I needed a direct, unmediated release for the grief and anger I myself was experiencing, which can happen in poems. This is a dark topic that can feel at times oppressive. The excerpt from the book that appears as an EP at Essay Press represents about half of what I’ve written, and I’ve got a good deal more to go. I’m really living the book in the sense that I began collecting all the plastic I find every day on my dog walk and cataloging it on my website and Tumblr. It’s gross to pick up plastic, and depressing. On the other hand, it’s awe-inspiring to discover how all these things connect, to really experience and internalize the beautifully complex nets in which our lives are embedded. That is what will spur me to finish this work.

MA: The structure of Plastic is so effective in guiding the reader along these different threads you’re exploring. How did you decide to format the book this way?

AC: It wasn’t a conscious decision. My experience in writing the book has been a slow discovery of these interconnections between my own life and the violence of these technologies. I wanted to structure the book to deliver to readers the same kind of discovery. The short sections do that. They also interweave with one another in an episodic way—a little bit of one thread is revealed, then another—which enacts within the text the interconnections I’m tracing in life. But I didn’t rationally plan this out in advance—the discoveries within the book and the writing of it coexist.

MA: Can you talk about building mystery in your writing, as you work to illuminate and expand on certain connections?

AC: The mystery has been inherent in the writing, uncovering it as I go, that’s part of the wonder of it. So I’m not consciously creating it, though of course I am deciding how to order the pieces after the fact. That process is also intuitive, just kind of a feeling forward in thought and writing. I have collected many photos and lists of plastic as part of my process that don’t appear in the EP but that may be part of the finished book. Following the writers Kaia Sand and Eleni Sikelianos, I want to think of the book as an “installation site” that can contain more than text.

MA: Were there any contemporary writers who influenced Plastic?

AC: In addition to the two just mentioned, Susan Howe is a powerful and abiding influence, as is Alice Notley, who sits at the very top of my pantheon of contemporary writers. I’ve been inspired by recent documentary and mixed-genre work by Jill Magi, Claudia Rankine and Susan Landers. I’ve loved recent poetry books by Brandon Brown, Sarah Fox, Kim Hyesoon, Jennifer Tamayo and Dana Ward.

MA: You mention Heidegger’s essay “The Thing.” Heidegger, you say, had this idea that living under the sway of technology endangers people’s relationship to all that exists. Can you talk more about this idea?

AC: I find it difficult to talk about Heidegger, frankly. I am not a Heidegger expert (few people are), but also I ultimately reject his thinking because of his Nazism, despite his influence on philosophy and the humanities. I see Heidegger as part of the darkness—the racial fear, terror and desire for revenge—that drove the vast violence of World War II and led to the acceleration and development of technologies that have completely altered the globe: plastic and nuclear weapons. Perhaps the two seem incommensurate, but as the book attempts to show, they are linked, and both arise out of basic fear-driven desires to increase one’s own power, profits and abilities at any cost.

I think Heidegger is wrong about technology—by which he meant not really discrete technical advances but a way of viewing the world that sees everything as instrumental, only an object of potential use. I think it is actually those deeper, unexamined, unchecked drives—fear, grief, desire—that endanger people’s relationship to all that exists. My hope for the book is to expose how those basic drives lead to the very complex systems of exploitation and violence we have today. For example, global capitalism.

MA: You wrote that after you decided to write an autobiography of plastic, a car part showed up against your fence: “I want it to speak to me. I want it to tell me something about how to live.” (40) Was there something from another point in your life that visited you in such a way?

AC: Green-Wood Cemetery. I lived across from the cemetery in Brooklyn, New York from 2002 until 2009. I visited it every day—at 500 acres, it was the largest green space in Brooklyn, filled with beautiful trees and ponds, birds and flowers. Soon it insisted on inserting its presence into my writing in a way that left me forever altered.

MA: You did a lot of walking through Green-Wood, and you've said that the experience of walking for a long time lands you somewhere different and particular, mentally. Can you talk about this?

AC: Walking eventually leads me into a meditative state in which I can finally actually take in the external world through my senses. It takes about 45 minutes of rhythmic walking to get out of my own head—my ego-driven, solipsistic thoughts—and open to the world. It’s a much different experience from my screen life, which is most of my life, in which I feel like I’m consuming a constant barrage of information. When I’m walking—in whatever context, urban, rural, suburban—I find myself slowly opening, able to take in more and more, to drink in my surroundings. It takes an inner quiet to do that. It takes patience and time.

MA: Have you returned to Green-Wood since? Are there other places that have inserted themselves into your writing?

AC: I visited Green-Wood most recently after Hurricane Sandy, which toppled dozens of trees in the cemetery, many of them more than a hundred years old. The other place that continues to insistently insert itself in my writing is Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I was born and raised. It is the place where the first atomic bombs were built and it remains a nuclear weapons lab.

MA: What is Los Alamos like? Was it a good place to grow up for a creative person?

AC: Los Alamos is a wealthy, largely white community of highly educated scientists plopped down in one of the poorest states in the U.S., a state with a so-called majority minority population, meaning most people living there are people of color—Native American or Hispanic. It is a cultured town, as one might expect—many scientists there are also accomplished musicians, for example—but science and rationality are the heroes of the town, not creativity, emotion, intuition. So I would say it was a good place to grow up because I was raised with money, privilege and a good education. It was not a place that nurtured creativity.

I had one English teacher, Rebecca Shankland, who introduced us to 20th century poetry—Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke. I loved those poems, but I had no idea that living people wrote poetry, much less that there were powerful poets living very near me, like Leslie Marmon Silko and Jimmy Santiago Baca. It’s possible that people tried to show to me these things and that as a teenager I just wasn’t paying much attention. I did always have a pretty acute sense of not really belonging in the place where I was born—Los Alamos arouses strong feelings among residents of nearby communities, many of them negative for obvious reasons. Once, when I was walking through downtown Santa Fe, which is about 30 miles away from Los Alamos where I was born, someone yelled at me “Tourist! Go home!” This sense of not quite being able to put down roots has stayed with me ever since, I think it informs my position as a poet and writer, where having a sense of being on the outside looking in can be helpful for taking a critical view of the dominant culture.

MA: Did you like writing and reading as a kid, or was there something else you were more into?

AC: I always read and wrote. I read and read and read—I had weird perches to read in, usually warm places—sitting on a heating vent, on top of the dryer, on top of the refrigerator. I consumed novels. I also wrote—short stories mostly, but also nonfiction. We had a spy club when we were kids and my contribution was to write an extensive report on Mata Hari.

MA: Does writing usually feel good, or is it somewhat stressful? Do you find it pleasant to throw stuff out, to write and know that much of it might not count? Or is that painful?

AC: As with any regular practice, a certain repetitive labor accompanies daily writing—that can seem pleasantly ritualistic or effortful, depending. Producing a lot of writing that isn’t becoming anything can be frustrating. But none of that lessens the moment when something totally new arrives in writing, something completely surprising and unexpected, or when several circulating ideas and obsessions suddenly cohere into a musical whole. Those moments are life renewing, or, more precisely, they are living, actually immersing in that moment—a thing that rarely occurs for most of us I think. For me the stressful part about writing is that nearly everything works against it, that the dominant culture finds zero value in most of the work I love, particularly poetry. Constantly working against that devaluing and denial is, well, exhausting.

MA: In an interview last year Joy Williams said that "Real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves." Is establishing this type of framework something that's on your mind?

AC: Lots and lots of people are taking this on in all kinds of writing—there’s a whole genre called “ecopoetry.” Many writers are also taking on the full scope of injustices that keep our system operating. See the work of Claudia Rankine, Alice Notley’s recent book Negativity’s Kiss, a scathing take on contemporary culture, Joyelle McSweeney’s brilliant play Dead Youth, or The Leaks, CA Conrad, Don Mee Choi, Brian Teare Juliana Spahr’s entire body of work. And those are only some poets living in North America (or Europe in the case of Notley). I could go on for a long time even limited to that geographic range.

I would also note the majority of this work is published on small presses run by poets dedicating largely unpaid labor to getting this work into the world. People are also working very consciously to build more just, egalitarian communities—I think the Omni Commons in Oakland is a totally inspiring example.

There have been lots of difficult, emotional debates in the poetry community recently about issues of race and sexual violence that, although painful, I think create a lot of hope for a different future. This is a thrilling time to be a poet, a writer.

MA: It can be tough not to sound preachy when writing about issues you feel strongly about. Do you have any advice for younger writers who want to write about humans' effects on the environment?

AC: Preach! But also, delve into the complexity of the problems and how they are all interconnected, and also into one’s own deeply embodied complicity.

MA: What kind of work do you do for the Environmental Defense Fund?

AC: I write funding proposals.

MA: While you're writing these proposals at work, does it take a lot out of you? Are you getting angry when asking for money for a certain issue, or depressed if a funding proposal is denied? Do you accumulate a kind of energy from being at work, or does it drain you?

AC: I’ve been working for an environmental organization for 15 years, and in the course of my work I absorb a constant stream of information about the ecological crisis unfolding around us. That is what makes me feel grief and anger. I have been speaking with a colleague, a really interesting climate scientist, and she pointed out that in the context of the biosphere, grief indicates a sense of connection while anger shows a desire for justice. I think that’s a clarifying way to think about it. I get energy from my colleagues, who are smart, committed, passionate people working hard to push forward practical solutions. They maintain their optimism for change against daunting odds. But rationality and logic alone will not get us to the change we need; we must also have a means of expressing and metabolizing emotions, of intuiting and imagining a different way of being on the planet—art is one way to do that.

MA: How would you describe the writing scene in Portland, compared to Brooklyn or other places you've lived?

AC: The Portland scene has lots and lots of energy. In the five years I’ve lived here it has kind of exploded—many poets coming here, many of them younger, infusing excitement into the scene. There are a bunch of reading series and a commitment to small and letterpress publishing that I love. The Independent Publishing Resource Center is a cornerstone for the community. It is a nonprofit center that offers affordable access to letterpress machines, perfect binding machines—all kinds of resources. It also is so generous in sharing its space for readings and events, including my own reading series, The Switch. Anyone with tons of extra cash should consider giving it to the IPRC—I’m not sure anything like it exists anywhere else. Also, there are incredible independent bookstores—even new ones opening—including Mother Foucault’s, Anthology, Division Leap, Passages, Daedalus Books, of course Powell’s.

I sometimes tell people that Portland is like poetry playland. That can be a bit double-edged though. While there are some politically conscious poets here that I deeply admire, like Kaia Sand, the scene is not particularly politically engaged, and there is not much interaction among the diverse poetry communities. I’m working to forge more connections, and there are other poets doing a lot. The poet Stacey Tran is an incredible connector here of diverse artistic and intellectual communities.

MA: What are you working on now? What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

AC: I’ve just finished a poetry manuscript called After we all died, and I’m working to finish the full manuscript, Plastic, an autobiography. I don’t see myself in ten years—I don’t look that far ahead. What I hope for the world is that in ten years a mass citizens movement will have forced changes in the current system of capitalist excess whose ultimate logic is death—death for many living communities, including most of world’s human population whom the system exploits, and ultimately also for the small proportion of wealthy people who enjoy its short-term benefits.

MA: If your writing process were a meal, what would it be and why?

AC: [here]

MA: If you could reduce the main ideas in Plastic to five words, what would those be?

AC: Plastic is all of us.


Allison Cobb is the author of Born2 (Chax Press) about her hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Green-Wood (Factory School) about a nineteenth-century cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The New York Times called Green-Wood “a gorgeous, subtle, idiosyncratic gem.” Cobb’s work combines history, nonfiction narrative and poetry to address issues of landscape, politics, and ecology. She is a 2015 Djerassi Resident Artist; a 2014 Playa Resident Artist; received a 2011 Individual Artist Fellowship award from the Oregon Arts Commission; and was a 2009 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She works for the Environmental Defense Fund. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-curates The Switch reading series.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her fiction has recently been published or is forthcoming in Big Lucks, The Atlas Review, and Two Serious Ladies. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming and is an editor at Essay Press. You can find her online here.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Jay Ponteri: On Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser

On Looking at Me Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. Published by New Directions, October 2015.


People of the essay—I have an announcement to make. Pull out your earbuds. Fluff your pillowy ears. We, the essayists of America, hereby claim Swiss writer Robert Walser as one of our own. I repeat: Robert Walser has been chosen by the Essay Team. I repeat: Robert Walser wears his yellow leisure-suit uniform for the Essay Team (From “The Walk”: In my bright yellow English suit, which I had received as a present, I really seemed to myself, I must frankly admit, a great lord and grand seigneur, a marquis strolling up and down his park…). I repeat: the Essay Team believes walking while thinking-dreaming-perceiving and writing essays are twin earthworms tunneling through a single clump of damp soil. O autumn alluvium! I repeat: putting one foot in front of the other thought in front of the other foot in front of the other thought. I repeat: the Essay Team has open seats, people. I repeat: “open” is the operative word here. I repeat: it was one of those days of salvation and loss.

Don’t misconstrue here. I’m not saying Robert Walser was only an essayist nor am I arguing to fit his prose works into a single genre or to even discern various prose genres. If I did so, my own inner-Walser would scoff at me. I would scoff at me. I would invite you, reader, to scoff at me. Be a European, scoff at me. What I’m saying is the essayists of America, okay, the essayists of the world—what better place to make this announcement than in Essay Daily—are bringing Robert Walser into our fold.

I’m pretty sure fellow essay writer Elena Passarello has my back here as she came up with the idea of claiming Walser on this very website. My entire essay here is an aside. My essay is not even an essay. Are you a lion or a lamb? FYI, I’m defining the essay very loosely, as the mind within the mind in motion on the page. Or: the act, the EVENT, of revealing the prowling curious mind, the dreaming mind (the screaming zither), the remembering mind, the feeling mind, the mind attempting to figure something out, knowing it will never do so, on (and off) (and beyond) the page. The page is our hero. The page is our arrow. The page is our pharaoh. I want to save you from your sorrow. The only way I can see inside your thoughts is by showing you mine. The Essay Team will not reduce Walser’s immensity as a prose writer by calling him “an essayist,” but we will read ALL of his prose works closely, we will care for his works by purchasing them for ourselves and for others. We will discuss his works at cafes and bookstores, in classrooms, in ear canals, in pill boxes, in our thoughts, in the shower stall, in the bathtub, in the bathtub of our thoughts, in our bathtub’s thoughts. His books will grow in piles atop our nightstands, will cozy up to our IBM Selectric typewriters and laptops and legal pads of yellow paper. What writer gave more of his mind to his works than Robert Walser? Possibly Virginia Woolf? Clarice Lispector? John Keats? Even Walser’s novels—The Robber, The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob Von Gunten—often feel like beautifully wobbly story shells barely containing the author’s unfurling expanding—ripping out, raising up and over and within—interiority. For Walser the dramatic moment is not external action but interior instance. In short: thought is plot. In short: what happens in the mind is just fine. In short: if it’s yellow, let it mellow.

Hey readers, guess what? New Directions and Christine Burgin Gallery are about to publish a book of Robert Walser’s prose on painting—titled Looking At Pictures. 


Walser's brother Karl was a successful painter and sought-after stage set designer in Berlin. After Walser moved there in 1905, he ran around with his brother’s crowd, worked for his brother’s artist group “Berliner Secession.” Here is a passage from Susan Bernofsky’s and Christine Burgin’s lovely introduction: “As a young writer producing a great deal of short prose for publication in journals and newspapers, Robert Walser frequently devoted his attention to works of visual art, whether by his brother and his contemporaries or by old masters. Ekphrasis was a mode of writing he came to love; he pursued it all his life” (6). Now let me introduce to you our dream team of translators: from left to right we have Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. Dear Mr. Middleton: I bow down in gratitude and reverence, in great praise, for first bringing Walser’s German-language prose into English in the 1960s. I thank you, Mr. Middleton. The Essay Team thanks you, Mr. Middleton. Others I know and don’t know thank you, Mr. Middleton. Am I the only who feels like pictures look at viewers, that the art, in fact, is made to view us, the viewers? Looking At Pictures collects meditations on paintings, dreams into paintings and beyond paintings, recalls prior writings on paintings, tells stories about painters, fabricates a painter’s journal. Looking at Pictures has very little to do with pictures and those who make them—has everything to do with LOOKING, with this particular viewer of pictures, more specifically, what passes through Robert Walser’s viewing mind. The mind that views pictures and painters is the mind in touch with both self and Other, with the self in mystery through the knowable and unknowable Other, which is to say, these writings are not so much about “looking at pictures” as much as they’re about Walser looking at himself looking at pictures, looking at his thoughts, making thoughts, as he thinks about, remembers, or imagines pictures and those who make them. Much of the writings (in)advertently reveal Walser’s aesthetic as a prose writer. Here in “A Painter,” the narrator, a painter, discusses his process:
A hand is often the seat of a great deal of stubborn willfulness, which first has to be broken. By deploying an energetic but gentle volition, it can be made wonderfully pliant, docile, and obedient. The defiance in it has been broken, like a bone, and the hand labors then like a strange, talented servant, growing stronger and more refined from day to day. The eye is like a bird of prey, glimpsing the tiniest aberrant movement. But the hand also fears the eye, its eternal tormenter. I myself don’t know what sort of spirits I am in when I am painting. A person creating something is one who is utterly absent and without feeling. Only when I take a break to survey what I have done, does it often occur to me that I am trembling with secret happiness. (21)
Walser was a maximalist. He worked towards radical inclusion, i.e., The eye is like a bird of prey, glimpsing the tiniest aberrant movement, i.e., an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. Dear Ander and Craig, That last clause might serve as a definition for the prose form we know as The Essay. Do you think? Do our lives move in loops or lines or zigzags? What part of me don’t you know? Little beads of sweat pooled in the bowl of her clavicle, which I licked clean. I’m a member of the Clean Plate Club. Bodies coil, bodies uncoil. Pema says, “Things come together and things fall apart.” A thought is a piece of flesh, is the oval motion of our vulva lives. I’m not sure what I mean there, Ander and Craig. Perhaps that the essay is one kind of bodily apparition. W.G. Sebald connects Walser’s need to STAY in the moment of composition indefinitely—to stay together with words, which are tiny bodies—to Walser’s core psychic issues around existence, i.e., human impermanence, core issues for all of us:
…the almost manic loquaciousness—these are all elements in the painstaking process of elaboration Walser indulges in, out of a fear of reaching the end too quickly if—as is his inclination—he were to set down nothing but a beautifully curved line with no distracting branches or blossoms. Indeed, the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival. ‘These detours serve the end of filling time, for I really must pull off a book of considerable length, otherwise I'll be even more deeply despised than I am now.’ (139-40)
Speaking of detours, this essay will NOT dismiss the art and technique of literary translation as most reviews in those big-city dailies do, with such vapid sentences as, “The translation deftly captures the…,” or “This is a solid translation…” And that’s if the reader is lucky, for reviewers of translated works usually don’t even mention the name of the translator or the fact that what they have read then reviewed is a literary translation, an experience of translation! It’s as if the translation of Dostoevsky’s Бра́тья Карама́зовы just magically appeared in the English language! If Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton hadn’t undertaken the laborious task of translating into English Robert Walser’s German prose, I wouldn’t be reading Robert Walser’s words translated into English, and you wouldn’t be listening to or reading my words about Robert Walser’s, and I wouldn’t be what I am now—a human man wholly, confidently uncertain about the mysterious world he encounters, willing as much as possible on and off the page to not only ensure but deepen that uncertainty, the mystery of infinite possibility and connectivity. I feel the feeling, watch the feeling pass through me, without fastening the feeling to words, to a reason that reduces nuance. Perhaps it’s reason enough to say we are divided souls, we feel contradictory feelings. We feel alive. We feel the dead living inside of us. Robert Walser’s work is speaking to me, through me. I paint my lips with my yellow Walser walking stick. Here I offer the heartiest thank you to our translators. Thanks Susan, thanks Lydia, and thanks Christopher, or do you go by Chris? Any translator of Walser’s work encounters Walser’s decorative, chatty prose, rich in sonic tooth and frenetic, yellow imagination. Walser’s tendency was to write long, digressive sentences that expand and expand and never let go, extending an image or hyper-modifying a noun or verb or blooming a thought in order to inhabit (BLOW UP!) the Present Moment, warding off death, dread of death, the physical and psychic pain that signals its likelihood. Is this a zit or a tumor on my neck? Have I told my son today I love him dearly? Before distillation comes elaboration. Before death comes life. Before and after orgasm come loneliness. Yes, I have told my son I love him dearly. Yes, I have fed my pug dog her kibble and scratched behind her ears. Yes, I dreamt myself dead today. Yes, I have spoken to my beloved silver. Yes, the winds blow in from the gorge and shush and shake the bamboo leaves and yes, the words passing through my thoughts whoosh through my body, bake me a little (a lot) and now here they are for you. Are you viewing my word-pictures through your heart goggles? Walser’s description of his own writing style emphasizes expansion and association—two essential streams (among many) of the essay voice:
Certain conditions, circumstances, orbits are just there, never to appear again perhaps, or again only when least anticipated. Aren't anticipations and suppositions unholy, pert, and insensitive? The poet must ramble, must audaciously lose himself, must always risk everything, everything, must hope, should do so, should only hope. —I remember that I began to write the book trifling hopelessly with words, with all sorts of thoughtless sketching and scribbling. —I never hoped to be able to compose something that was serious, beautiful, and good. A sounder train of thought, and, along with it, the courage to create, emerged only slowly, but thus all the more rich in secrets, out of the gulfs of self-forgetting and of reckless disbelief. —It was like sunrise. Evening and morning, past and future time and the exciting present lay as if at my feet, a terrain right there in front of me came to life and I thought that in my hands I could hold human activity, all human human life, seeing it as vividly as I did. One image succeeded another and ideas played with each other like happy, graceful, well-behaved children. I clung delighted to the frolicking main idea, and as long as I went on busily writing, everything connected. (7-8)
Bernofsky’s and Davis’s and Middleton’s translations handle sound, imagination, and language with precision, variety, aplomb. There are ten different ways to make a thing. Words, sounds of words, dreams, ideas, stories—these various streams flow smoothly, thickly through Walser’s idiosyncratic, multiple voice pouring forth like a brimming cataract in spring after a heavily wetting winter. The prose in English expresses the clarity of spoken, voice-driven language, e.g., “One day I experienced a small, charming adventure with my landlady, wife of the cantonal notary, on account of a picture hanging on the wall of my room. This room was snugness, coziness and hominess itself” (41). Walser’s voice—in thought, in consideration—whispers and screams to itself and to others, interrupts and digresses, loops and double-dips (“snugness, coziness”)—always in what sounds to the my ears like engaged, curious conversation. His prose offers the feel of a good, affable, intense chat. The chats Europeans have—no time for small talk, let’s get to the matter at hand, to feeling, to ideas that cut right to the core of our existence, of our hearts. Death. Sex. Relation. Feeling.


The translations here also express Walser’s discordant atmosphere arising from intricate, expansive layering—two or three (or more) narrative threads plus digressions of dream and inquiry, connected or disconnected, still braiding, a diction hitting at high, middle, and low alike, rich sonic attributes, and endlessly varied syntax. One can find the heartbeat of Walser’s work at the level of the sentence. A single Walser sentence is multiple, cacophonous, spiraling and swelling—all amplified through the unfolding syntax, which I’d describe as dilated and compact. The prose purposely piles upon noun and verbs multiple, distinctly analogous and oppositional modifiers, always corresponding and adding surplus meaning. Walser’s syntax disorganizes grammatical units, inverts phrasing, fragments, interrupts itself, meanders, doubles, thrices, equivocates, circles around to what seems like the place it began but on closer examination we’re someplace else. Its winding, variegated flow is guided by the breath of a multivalent voice thinking speaking aloud to itself. Grandma never ends, Grandma extends beyond Grandma. The critic Walter Benjamin described Walser’s sentences as garlands. Walser’s sentences are little long curvy walks, and the translations here create comparable walks in English. Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Dream (I),” in which the narrator dreams into his brother Karl’s picture. The fantastic picture shows a ghoulishly tall woman walking alongside a small hovering boy, and Walser imagines himself that boy.
An enormous woman led me by the hand. Every woman is large when tender sentiments fill her, and the man who enjoys her love is always small. Love increases my stature; and being loved and desired makes me small. So now, dear, gracious reader, I was so diminutive and small that I could comfortably have slipped into the soft muff of my tall, dear, sweet woman. That hand that held me floated, dancing, was covered with a black glove that reached high up to above the elbow. We were crossing an elegantly curved and vaulted bridge, and the red-hued, poetically fantastical train of my noble lady twined in its full length across the entire bridge, beneath which dark, warm, fragrant water lazily flowed, bearing upon it golden leaves. Was it autumn? Or was it spring that bore not green leaves but gold ones? (53-54)
Evidently some literary magazines do not enjoy my proclivity to pull out long passages. I won’t name names. (Chicago Review.) I do believe the most perfect book review—and this is not a book review but a no-essay in the form of a lecture to nobody—would be re-publishing the book in its entirety with the headline, See for yourself.

Let’s turn our attention to this wondrous passage above.

But first I shall interrupt myself to say this:

Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton are Gifted Artists—and literary translation is an Art.

Now let’s hold hands and notice, together, Ms. Bernofsky’s clarity of sound alongside the precision of her diction choices. Any translator of Walser needs to find a(n) (im)balance between the prose’s tempestuous sound world and its ruffled sense-making apparatus, i.e., sometimes Walser makes sense by not making sense. As we reread this next sentence, listen for the generous accretion—like a welcome spill, oops!—of D’s, P’s, L’s, and R’s. “On my head, I wore a dainty dunce’s cap. My lips were red as roses, my hair a golden yellow that curled about my narrow temples in graceful ringlets. I had no body, or had one only barely.” The L-R sounds (“….hair a golden…,” “…narrow temples…,” “…graceful ringlets”), that mix of motor and tingle, heighten the narrator’s longing for the picture’s (and his dream’s) maternal figure. I’m someplace else, right now, in my thoughts of you, of Robbi Walser who speaks through the English of Ms. Bernofsky,“What we have we soon have no longer, and what we possess is easily lost. All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been. I was less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.” Consider the repetition of the word “longing,” how its grammatical positions within each clause it inhabits varies like a butterfly flitting around a single Fountain Butterfly bush. That word “longing” moves around like longing itself, here one moment, there the next moment, stretching then compressing. Longing is long. Then long gone. In long—all three translators here make an English prose that illumines all of Walser’s brimming layers, e.g., descriptions of the picture, dreams into the picture’s figures, essays and dreams around the pictures, digressions long and short into whatever passes through his viewing thoughts. The English prose dictates comparably what Walser at one time dictated in German. The English prose unfurls Walser’s great mix of compression and expansion, e.g., “That hand that held me floated, dancing, was covered with a black glove that reached high up to above the elbow.” Walser used a lot of words to chase around an indefinite amount meaning, yet the shorter forms of which he made use (sketch, essay-let, short-short story, dream) nudged him towards distillation too, which, along with his softly furry sound textures and imaginative stances, brought to life a kind of bursting concision to the work, and all of this is present in Bernofsky’s, Davis’s, and Middleton’s translations.

This is a lecture on a lecture on an essay I never wrote about a book Walser himself didn’t even write. Dear literary reviewers: I have a recommendation for you all. I recommend you directly engage within the review the writers whose work you’re critiquing. That word “critiquing” should be in quotations because for the most part reviewers are either selling books or spraying all over them with their ego-urine. I get irked by the sense the reviewer is talking to everybody but the writer of the work. Come on, people. Let’s be a little more direct, let’s encounter the connectedness of everything, the smallness of things. “What else does the infinite consist of than the incalculability of little dots?” asks Walser. We can impact others we don’t even know, will never see or touch or know. This writing made public is my private response to a thing made by a person who, if she is alive, might happen to read Sunday’s book review section. Dear Susan Bernofsky, I am speaking to you about what you have made. Dear Robert Walser, I’m always speaking to you. Dear Ander and Craig, There’s not a word count you’re looking for, right? People, at the least, let’s stop skewering each other. That just bores me to death. Why spend so much space-time tearing down a piece of art? A human being took the time to try to make something beautiful and complex, to try to help us feel less alone in the world, and here you are, Jennifer B. McDonald, pulverizing the author. Where are your manners? The novelist Thomas Mann panned one of Walser’s early novels, and Walser clearly couldn’t forget Mann’s words: “Even Thomas Mann, you know, that giant in the domain of the novel, regards me as a child, though a quite clever one to be sure.” One core aspect of Walser’s way of being in the world, that he spilled so generously into his work, that set Walser apart from his predecessors, peers, and future followers, is this sense of pure wonder like a child looking closely at something so ordinary, fleeting too, for the very first time. Walser’s capacity for wonder inadvertently reteaches us his readers how to pay close attention to the most simple gesture, to seek out within the real the dream, and to dream into the real. I consider myself a Critical Enthusiast thus I do not cloak little snipes in “critical response.” If I did I would be more interested in considering how my perceptions of a work’s flaws make the thing even more fucking beautiful. Can I say that word, Ander and Craig? Can I say “fucking”? And while I am at it—dear literary agents, Why so much focus on what can be sold based on what has been sold previously? Why more marketing and less engagement with language? Inside the word “market” is the word “mark” and inside the word language is the word gauge and the word egg. (Clarice Lispector, translation by Katrina Dodson: “The egg is a suspended thing. It has never landed. When it lands, it is not what has landed. It was a thing under the egg.”). Dear literary agents, I’m sorry, maybe I’m mistaken but were you not English majors? Why not pay attention to what brings you the lightest and darkest joys, what makes you feel less and more alone? Why can’t we all wear pink mechanic’s coveralls?


Why can’t we all play for the same team, people? I thought that’s why we began writing in the first place—to let go of separate teams of divided selves, to have only one big team of divided selves in support of the things we are making together and separately? Let’s make the thing. Let’s build small and big things, mysterious things. Let’s sharpen our pencils to the finest of points. Let’s put our pink-tinted goggles on, better to see the pink words passing through our pink minds. Robert Walser’s child-man narrator Franz Kocher concurs (fine translation here brought to us by Mr. Damion Searls): “Writing class may be the most lovely, attractive time for just this reason. No other class time goes by so noiselessly, so worshipfully, and with everyone working so quietly on their own. It is as though you could hear Thought itself softly whispering, softly stirring. It’s like the scurrying of little white mice” (17). Your cookie monster puppet. Your orange and blue moon boots. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Judy Blume’s Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing. The ice slicking the streets of your town. Your snow pants. Your yellow coin purse. Your Jolly Green Giant Vegetable Factory. Your Mishawaka Public Library Card. Your laminated book mark. Those were your childhood friends. They kept you company. They soothed you. The window was painted shut but you still looked through it, beyond it, where the world was but the world was inside you, so I asked Ms. Bernofsky about the joys and difficulties translating Walser. I report back to thee what she said:
Here's a joy in translating Walser: His sentences are so complicated and rabbit-hole-y that there's always a feeling of bliss when you've been wrestling with a sentence for some minutes, hours, or days, and then all at once the muddle resolves into a sort of clarity, or an unclear-ness that seems in line with the mysterious truths Walser's always sending our way.
A difficulty: Translating the structurally bureaucratic in such a way that the Walserian suppleness doesn't go out of it. Woodenness is fatal, and that's the constant danger with prose of this complexity - that the entire construction will turn to wood or stone under your fingers instead of offering up the living breathing flesh of a bold Helvetic insight.
The act of translation is an act of looking closely at a piece of writing in one language and creating its likeness in a different language. In a sense when I read Looking at Pictures, I’m a viewer looking at Bernofsky looking at Walser’s looking at pictures, who’s mostly looking at himself looking at pictures. One makes images on a page, on film, on screen, on a canvas, in space, in space-time. Another person, let’s call her viewer, views said image. This second person, viewer, also makes the image, fashions her own sense of the picture, brings to the picture her own body, her own idiosyncratic attention shaped by her way of being in the world. This epitomizes a human’s relationship to the world external. Look at this passage lovingly translated by Lydia Davis:
…he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. The shepherd is wearing a dark blue jacket, and around this contented loafer graze the lambs and sheep, while overhead in the summer morning air, swallows fly across the cloudless sky. Looming up from the opulent, rounded tops of the leafy trees, one can glimpse the wispy tips of a few firs. (51-52)
The picture, painted by Walser’s brother Karl, with its green meadow and blue-coated shepherd and grazing lambs and wispy fir-tree tips, exists as a separate entity from Walser, the picture acts independently from Walser’s body. It is and isn’t connected to it—it’s of him, inside him. Walser pays close attention to picture’s motion (the lambs’ grazing and flying swallows), attaches himself to creatures nourishing their lives, our lives too. It’s as Walser were making his own image here. He is and he isn’t. What he senses moving about in the world external, separate from him, exists inside him. What he sees other people seeing exists separate from him, inside him, and his meditations call attention to and stitch together those two realms. In stories about painters, meditations on pictures, and dreams inside and around them, what we might now refer to as Ekphrasis, Walser crowds around elements of a picture that fascinate him, that hint at the painter’s preoccupations but mostly reveal Walser’s preoccupations, Walser’s consciousness in the moment of viewing. Viewing as consciousness. One sees what one can see of the thing, one sees in only the singular way one sees. One sees oneself encountering the world and the world, in turn, looks upon the viewer. Double visibility, connectivity to self, to Other. Gertrude and Alice B. The action of viewing pictures, viewing something Other, becomes an act of revelation, of self, of Other, of the many Others inside the self. Who’s voice am I hearing? That stranger speaking cannot be me. O I love you strange soft open mouth. The critical and the imaginative braid together. Viewer and painter braid together. Two distinct dreams braid together. John and Yoko. Woodenness is fatal. George and Mary. The prose describes his mind’s eye looking at the painting, what the painting conjures up for him, what thoughts ping through his air-balloon consciousness in floaty flight. We look at Walser figuring something out on the page without even attempting to. In “Catastrophe” Walser views a picture of a ship at sea on fire. The picture is not shown nor does Walser mention the artist’s name. What’s foregrounded is Walser’s looking:
How terrifying a ship on fire is. Gazing at this picture, I said to myself: The mariners find themselves faced with the necessity of fleeing the fire; but they have nowhere to escape to but the water, and soon enough they’ll be trying to escape from that as well; yet they have no choice but to take refuge in it. Beautifully spread out, the water lies there like a meadow; not the tiniest wave disturbs this mirror that conceals unfathomable depths. The mirror’s expansiveness poses a threat to the ones in peril, those desirous of rescue. Beneath the water, unknown mountain chains extend. This fact is surely known to the better educated among the mariners, and this precise knowledge makes them feel significantly more forsaken than those who enjoy perfect ignorance in this regard. Education, though reliable and helpful, is also treacherous. (76)
A picture for Walser does not describe a static moment. His accordion activision takes in the story within the instance the picture portrays then dreams around the instance—that is, before and after, or even alternative possibilities, those unplotted points our mathematicians call extrapolation. In the passage above, Walser even peers into the Other world, the Invisible world, the Impossible world. I mean, there are many visible worlds, each headspace is a visible world, but there is only one Invisible world. There is only one instance of death. We live through so many deaths. The water is “spread out like a meadow,” and what lies beneath the water, what he cannot see is that unknown chain of mountains, there for some and not there for others, and not actually there at all. Walser endows every object and creature he senses with volatile, flexible, multiple, visible and invisible, pink-glowing spirit. Every sentences trembles in bodily contradiction. Here is a passage from my favorite piece in Looking at Pictures, entitled, “Thoughts on Cézanne,” one of the pieces Mr. Middleton translated, first appearing in the most amazing prose collection, Selected Stories, published by FSG then NYRB.
He magicked flowers onto paper, so that upon it they quivered, rejoiced, and smiled, swaying in their plantlike ways; his concern was the flesh of flowers, the spirit of the secret which dwells in the resistance a thing with special properties offers to understanding. (141)
Is it tacky to lift a passage from an entire essay I wrote then published elsewhere about this very sentence? Have I become one of these people who quotes himself? I have. Here is what I said in an essay that appears on the Tin House blog. (Dear Ander and Craig—No need to hyperlink unless you think it prudent to do so. What does the word prudent even mean? Who am I when I use the word prudent? Sincerely, Jay.) (Dear Ander and Craig—Perhaps we might view self-quoting as a kind of looping deepening uncertainty, an expression of humility. To essay is to unknow. To unknow is to renew mystery, to restore that Walserian child’s sense wonder, of play. When I look through my pink-tinted goggles at my hand, I see someone else’s hand, and when something opens before me, it makes room inside for me. Frenchie Joseph Joubert, translation Paul Auster, says it this way: “I know too well what I am going to say. I know it too well before writing.” Kindest of regards, Jay.) I’m drawn to the dazzling action verb “magicked,” which means, in its intransitive form, “to produce, remove, or influence through the use of magic.” Walser’s / Middleton’s choice here seems fresh in the way it shifts away from its ordinary usage as adjective to its stranger, more ethereal usage as action verb. Magicked. It immediately draws my attention to the sentence as beautifully essential artifice without at all removing me from the sentence’s surface. In fact the verb “magicked” pushes me deeper into the sentence’s mysterious, seemingly impossible action of making something out of nothing, of putting flowers ONTO paper, and in the next part of that sentence (its second base clause), those flowers begin to take on sentient life. The flowers “quiver,” “rejoice,” “smile,” and “sway.” Walser here describes not Cézanne painting flowers but the impression Cézanne’s painted flowers leave on Walser, the way Walser sees the flowers on actual paper and on the paper of his mind. Thinking is not restful. Not only do the flowers quiver and sway—as flowers are wont to do—they “smile” and “rejoice.” The flowers express and celebrate their feelings of joy. The flowers are not really flowers nor are they merely a representation of flowers on paper or canvas (which comes from a once living thing we call Tree)—they are sentient, human, capable of feeling and expression, and Walser expresses their expression, Walser also shows you his process of expression, how his mind moves. From object to subject. From insentience to sentience. From flesh to spirit. These movements uncover the Other within the self and the Other out in the world separate from the self.

Which brings me to where I started: we, the Essay Team, are willing to house Mr. Robert Walser and his stunning prose works. I’m not saying Walser is solely an essayist (I’d like to) but I will say that Essay Team members will care for his works, will read his works, will buy up all copies of new translations by Ms. Bernofsky and others. Why is this? What is Walser doing that is of great import to the Essay Team? Walser weaved prose works from the fabric of his inquiring thoughts and dreams, from his multiple contradictory selves. Walser’s work foregrounded not simply the contents of his mind but its oval motion. That’s what the poem does, what the essay does too—and don’t ask me to discern between the poem and the essay because I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not going to hold your hand here although if you ask me to I’ll hold your heart, dear reader, dear listener, dear nobody in particular. In “Watteau” Walser considers Jean-Antoine Watteau, an 18th century French painter. What begins in biographical reportage soon gives way to Walser’s disheveled inquiry and self-revelation. He uses the painter, the painter’s picture, as a launching point into the experience of meditation in which he shoots his thoughts through his dream-face, his singsong voice:
At an early age, no doubt, he would have to bid farewell to breathing and walking, thinking and eating, sleeping and all other activity, he relatively soon found himself compelled to feel, and, making the acquaintance of both garrets and gleaming ballrooms, as well as persons of all possible shadings, he quietly retreated into a realm all his own, finding a joy verging on perfection in reclusiveness. One who is please to be alive and feels gratitude on this account lives all the more amicably and peacefully, feeling no need to feverishly, hastily attend to matters that are better dealt with the more calmly and lightheartedly one goes about them. I happened to read his biography, which offered me little by way of clues. As I attempt now to sketch his portrait, he seems to me like a wish, a longing, and so the ethereal delicacy of my study surprises me not in the least. (123-24)
The first sentence seems (deceptively so) biographical but it’s not, it’s biographical dream (Nabokov’s book, Nikolai Gogol, comes to mind), infused with Walser’s own experience of being an artist. Memory as dream. And what a dream. That one departs from the world external to engage one’s emotional life (“…he relatively soon found himself compelled to feel…”). Walser crowds around Watteau’s reclusiveness to get at his own. Then this lovely shift to meditation; Watteau drops away, and the indefinite pronoun “One” materializes. Humble, timid Walser. Suddenly too shy to assert himself even as he reveals cogently his own process of making. As if he were trying to figure something out inside of a dream. The dream self in essay. “As I attempt now to sketch his portrait, he seems to me like a wish, a longing, and so the ethereal delicacy of my study surprises me not in the least.” That phrase “ethereal delicacy” signals where we have moved. To a mind’s dream, to something fragile, bendy too, visible and invisible, here and gone. The movement for Walser is always towards the invisible, and this, my dear friends, is why the Essay Team will care for Mr. Walser’s works. We move curiously from what we think we can explain but can’t to what we know we can’t explain, to what must remain mysterious, beyond, within reach but untouchable, touchable only through spiritual action. We know by not knowing. The essayist moves to the nether regions—O Iceland. O gutter. O autumn chill. O snowfall. The essay stands at the fence looking into the ether of Other partly lit, partly unlit, matter scattering anti-matter, language pivoting on contradiction. Should I preach to her or perch near her? The writer drives the essay through vertical, indefinite inquiry. Where the writer’s mind happens is where the essay happens. The essay demands its writer to not only be present in the moment of composition but to be present with one’s body, one’s fingertips and toes, collarbone, shoulder, back of neck, hips, penis, vagina, penis-vagina, vagina-penis, knees, armpits, earlobes, palm, lips, eyelids, one’s innermost self, the spleen’s soul and the soul of the spleen, the strange self, the receiving self, the self at play, in the dark, the breath in self. The self listens to itself, responds, equivocates, scrutinizes, draws connections, defines and redefines, embraces uncertainty and disorganizing thought, the act of unknowing ourselves, Others. This innermost self-elf remains curious, receptive, is in touch with the full spread of interior modes, e.g., sensorium, memory, thought, dream, music. Robert Walser stood in line at the tavern and didn’t know where to point his eyes and he became increasingly unsettled and he decided to close his eyes and he stopped moving in line and people simply walked around him, this man standing still with his eyes closed. Here I’m looking at a picture, making one, really, of Robert Walser, or no, I’m looking at a picture of me looking at Robert Walser, or am I looking at a picture of me looking at Robert Walser looking at pictures some of which aren’t even pictures? The sugar is not even sugar? O dear men of earth, I love you and I write to you with love. I’m not afraid to say, I love all of you men, even the most violent of you. People, we can’t feel empathy for others if we don’t look into their open faces and hold their gazes, sit or stand across from them and steady their eyes inside ours till mysterious, vulnerable creatures with whom we share in common everything and nothing emerge like the moon and the sun, like your mother’s voice emerges inside yours, I mean, they’ve been there all along, just not visible to the eye or discernible to the ear. It will take me the rest of my life to figure out why I love Robert Walser’s work so much, how and why it resonates within me, why his voice pours through mine. I used to feel very connected to aspects of Walser’s biography—his loneliness, struggle with mental health, his work’s disregard by his fellow writers, his poverty, his walking, his love for the natural world (surely Walser was a naturalist as much as Thoreau)—and how that story did and did not (conceal / reveal) manifest in the prose itself: those lonely characters, the deeply hewn interiority that never plays second fiddle to plot or the dramatic moment or more aptly said, the dramatic moment is, for Walser, the interior moment. Thought. Thought materializing through voice. Walser’s self-reflexivity, self-consciousness. Silliness. Acute, ample sensory receptors. The body of his work taken together is one big beautiful digression, a zigzagging walk through the motion of his consciousness. If I had to pair Walser with a musician, I would pick the music of Lisa Germano. Circular, deeply spiritual, revelatory, country and city, purposely imbalanced. O Miss Germano’s hum is something I want to curl up with, hold and be held by but that is an essay for una otra vez. As I get deeper in re-readings of Walser’s prose, as his voice thickens within my own, what resonates more is the loneliness he must have endured for so many years. Anybody who walks around feeling five feet inside of themselves, anybody who must peel through multiple layers of crowding, curling thoughts to reach the word external, to touch others, to be touched by others, must experience intense feelings of loneliness, separateness. Many writers (many non-writers too) experience this sort of depression (to be pushed inside) but do not try to record or recreate it on the page. The work they do pushes away from that in-dwelling, for that’s what they need to walk out into the world, to walk about it. Walser wrote from and about these subterranean spaces, below the sea floor, exploring deep caverns of self, of the psyche, beyond autobiography. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life works similarly, Mary Ruefle’s verse and prose too. Their works are of the self without being confessional—and I doth not use the word “confessional’ pejoratively; I have much compassion for confessional prose and verse—how the work reveals a multiplicity of selves, how the work often acknowledges itself as something being made. Walser shows the seams of the work and even those seams signal movement and what movement tells us is we are alive on this earth, how lucky we are to move about, to make things move, to make dreams of moving. How lucky we are to magick flowers onto paper.


Books from which I quote:

Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser. Translations by Susan Bernofsky, Christopher Middleton, and Lydia Davis. New Directions.

A Place in the Country by WG Sebald. Translation by Jo Catling. Random House.

Selected Stories by Robert Walser. Translation by Christopher Middleton. New York Review Books Classics.

A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser. Translation by Damion Searls. New York Review Books Classics.

Interview with Susan Bernofsky done over email.


Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University. His memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books and received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again,​ was published by Future Tense Books. His essay “L​isten to this" ​w​as mentioned as a Notable Essay in B​est American Essays 2010.​ He has published prose in Ghost Proposal, Clackamas Literary Review, Silk Road Review, Del Sol Review, Seattle Review, Salamander, Cimarron Review, Puerto Del Sol, and Forklift, Ohio, among others.