Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Matthew Vollmer on 21st Century Prose

21st CENTURY PROSE: 
WE LIKE WORDS AND VOICES 
AND THAT FOR WHICH WE HAVE NO NAME

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Matthew Vollmer

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I.

It’s no secret that books are made of words. No writer or reader would dispute such a thing. The notion that words—their selection and placement—matter: it’s simply not up for debate. Or is it? Because it seems weird that so many writers seem more interested in foregrounding story—or plot—than the language they rely on to tell that story. Yes, of course, there are plenty of writers who do and have done this, and I’ll name a few as a way of explaining what I mean in a minute; I just wish there were more. I hope I don’t sound elitist, and I shouldn’t give the false impression that I don’t sometimes want to burn through something in order to find out “what happens”—I just prefer, for the most part, to experience the kind of narrative fueled by the idiosyncratic manner in which the writer sets words on the page. Too often, I open a book or begin reading a story whose writer seems content to rehearse the familiar—and thus predictable—ways in which words have been strung together and I think, not this again, and toss the book aside. Am I too easily bored? Too demanding? Or is it okay to say that I—as a man who is now inhabiting that space in his life called “middle age”—have begun to sense that time is running out, and that there are only so many books in the world, and that I feel less inclined to read writing doesn’t, in some way, exhibit more strenuously the infinite possibilities of what language can do? Because if I really think about it—and believe me, I do—the books and stories that have meant the most to me are those whose words matter as much as, if not more than, anything else. Bottom line: I want the books I read to surprise me. To show me new ways of seeing and thinking. To generate propulsive linguistic energy. To open doors and lead me down new passages, not only into parts of the universe I haven’t yet explored, but also to tap into modes of representation that exhibit an artist’s idiosyncratic and thus singular experience of being alive in the world.


II.

I doubt that the vision of 21st Century Prose differs all that much from other publishers of literary work in that the central aim of the series is to introduce writers who are making compelling literary art to readers who hunger for the same. What do I mean by “compelling literary art”? Part of me says that I won’t know it until I see it, and that any definition I provide will be sadly insufficient. But another part of me says, try anyway, and that’s when I’ll point to the description of our series, which appears on the University of Michigan website:
The 21st Century Prose series celebrates varieties of forms—of prose that breaks the rules, bends conventions, and reconfigures genre. The books in this series engage playfulness and experimentation without sacrificing accessibility and readability. The voices represented in the series come alive on the page through prose that is at once down-to-earth and also a reflection of an artist at home with his or her improvisations. Life-affirming but convention-defying, the language in these books strives to be both groundbreaking and readable. The 21st Century Prose series listens for and endorses voices that have been marginalized, reports from zones—physical and spiritual and emotional—from which we have yet to hear. Kind-hearted renegades. Things we can’t describe but that leave us pleasantly puzzled, forcing us to say, “Listen, just read it.” 

III.

I more or less wrote that description before I knew that 21st Century Prose would ever exist. Aaron McCollough, Editorial Director for the University of Michigan—and a friend of mine ever since the day we struck up a conversation about the band Guided By Voices in a Literary Theory course at North Carolina State University—asked me if I’d be interested in editing a book series. So I drew up a proposal. I didn’t know, really, what I was doing. All I could do was to describe the work I was most interested in, the kind of work I’d spent the last ten years or so reading and re-reading. Which, in some ways, is an impossible task, especially when the stuff I love most defies easy categorization. Is it fiction? Is it an essay? Is it both? The answer I hope to give is: “I don’t know” or “I can’t tell.” It’s why I insisted that the word “prose” appear in the title of our series. And it’s why I admire Ryan Ridge’s American Homes. One could argue that it’s a book-length essay, a series of essays, or even a series of fictions. In it, Ridge takes as his subject a series of ordinary things—in this case, the houses of America and their constituent parts, many of which are accompanied by illustrations drawn by the artist Jacob Heustis —and subsequently interprets them in ways that are hilarious, smart, and transcendent. The book functions as a catalog. A dictionary. A list. A series of meditations. A sequence of revisions and re-interpretations. A primer illustrating strategies for thinking about our everyday domestic spaces, and that by look long and hard at the world, we can transform it.


IV.

Walter Benjamin famously said, “All great works of art either dissolve or expand their genres.” It’s idea whose truth I can’t shake, in part because it tends to describe the kind of books I most admire: those that can’t immediately—or maybe ever—be neatly categorized. I think of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, of Rachel B. Glaser’s Pee on Water, of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, & Honey, of Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier, of Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia, of Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, of Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, of Stanley Crawford’s everything. What these books have in common, aside from the fact that they defy categories, is this: it’s impossible to sum them up. You have to experience them. There are no “spoiler alerts,” in part because they are not merely story-containers. They are doing something more. Each one exhibits a particular alive-ness to the extent that the books themselves almost seem sentient. One gets the sense that these books know you’re reading them. And that maybe they are reading you.
     That’s the kind of thing 21st Century prose endorses. We want books that can’t be “spoiled” if you tell someone else “what happens.” And we want to help writers whose books not only reflect reality in new and exciting ways—we want those books to feel, as you’re reading them, like living things.


V.

Here are some more things 21st Century Prose might be said to endorse:
     Long, rhythmic, voice-driven sentences.
     The illusion—often created by long, rhythmic, voice-driven sentences—of bobbing in the wake of an unspooling consciousness.
     Short sentences with simple words.
     The fantastic, rendered floridly.
     The everyday, rendered precisely and surprisingly enough for readers to experience it anew.
     The sense that a particular writer is telling a story only s/he can tell, and doing so effortlessly.
     Lists!
     Digressions.
     Improvisation.
     Repetition.
     Extended meditation.
     The locomotion of a fiercely humorous rant.
     The flickering disorientation of collage.
     The graceful acrobatics of a close and nuanced interpretation.
     A voice that—like an unselfconscious kid dancing triumphantly before of a mirror—succeeds in being purely itself.


VI.

I like to think that each of the first four books in the 21st Century Prose series represents a singular voice on the page, and that each book represents the kind of thing that only its writer could have made. Each one defies description and summary; each is a book that must be experienced, in part because each is not only about the story it has to tell, but also about the story’s language. I could tell you that A Heart Beating Hard by Lauren Foss Goodman is a story of a young woman named Marjorie who works as a greeter at a big box store and ends every day at an Elk lodge where she orders a single Shirley Temple, or that Matthew Derby’s Full Metal Jhacket is a collection of fabulist stories that re-imagine moments in history or flash forward to humorously bleak futures, or that Charles McLeod’s Settlers of Unassigned Lands unfolds like hallucinatory prose poems about the desolate places and desperate people in America, or that Ryan Ridge’s American Homes is a compendium of aphoristic and often hilarious meditations on domestic architecture—but even the best summaries would fail to accurately represent what it’s like to experience these idiosyncratic and propulsive voices. So, for the most part, I’ll bypass that futile work. Instead, I’ll invite you to check the books out for yourself. Visit the 21st Century Prose series at the University of Michigan Press website. Once you’re there, click on a book title, and read an excerpt—or the entire thing—for free, thanks to the University of Michigan’s “open access” policy, which promotes the idea that the work of scholars and creative artists—human beings whose occupation it is to produce new forms of knowledge and expression—should be available to everyone. Hopefully, as you explore these new works—and maybe even purchase a copy for yourself, or order one through your local library—you’ll find a voice you can cheer for: one that, in its own resonant and uncanny way, attempts to get at the heart of its world.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Ching-In Chen: Queer interview series, part 3


This interview with Ching-In Chen is the third in a series on queerness, genre, and the essay. The first interview with Douglas A. Martin can be read here, and the second with Jackie Wang can be read here.

Ching-In Chen is a community organizer, the author of The Heart’s Traffic, and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets. More of their recent work can be found on their website.

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T Clutch Fleischmann: As with the last two interviews in this series, I’d like to start by hearing a bit about your relationship to categorizations of genre and of gender/sexuality. So, first, do you think of yourself as a queer writer? As a trans writer? Do you think that your writing, or your writing practice, is somehow queer, trans, etc.?

Ching-In Chen: I identify as a queer writer and a genderqueer writer with an affinity to trans writing, and also as a writer connected to Asian/American communities and communities of color. For me, those communities intersect and have been important to me in forming my identity as a writer.

I frequently call myself a blurry writer because I am attracted to cross-genre or genrequeer writing—and I think there is a queer and trans quality about approaching the boundary and tinkering with it in multiple ways. One of my writing practices is writing against myself, subverting myself, trying to trick myself into an alternate conversation or another vantage point. After many repetitions of this process, I realized that I was circling around a similar set of concerns, but I was doing this because I was trying to get under the surface of my obsessions.

I like the idea of writing that attempts to subvert the writer’s self—it’s so beautifully contrary to a lot of ideas about writing, where the work supposedly encapsulates the self, the body, the lived experience, etc. Subverting also seems to still recognize the presence of a self, even if only as something that might be subverted. Do you feel like you’re often successful in the subversion? Can that goal be achieved? The zuihitsu you contributed to The Letter Q, for instance, seems to write into this tension in really interesting ways (“You can’t filter out that voice in your head,” etc.).

Success is an interesting way to think about subverting the self. I am the same self, which also means I am multiple and contradictory selves. I see myself as trying to approach these selves, especially the selves not taking up mainstage billing, with an indirect approach. The goal for me as a writer would be to reach what's underneath to bring to the surface. I don't know if it can be fully achieved. Instead, I think of it as a constant approach. It's my hope that the deeper you burrow, the more your work might reach towards a new insight.

I do also worry about going dry or reaching a dead end in my creative practice. I have been trained to show up as much possible, to be present for the page, a sort of meditative practice of waiting for what will come and rise to the surface. I'm part of a writing community called the Grind where we commit to sending/revising something every day for a month to our grind group. It's been an important community for my own creative practice, but producing/working at the level means also that there is always that tension with how stretched I can feel while pushing myself to keep going. As a writer, I need to feed and grow that energy constantly to maintain that level of production.

And then the second part, how much do you connect or not connect to traditions of essay writing? You’re probably most widely considered as a poet, although you’ve worked across a range of genres and hybrid forms, and I read a lot of your work as having essayistic qualities. Are questions of genre important to you while you write, or in how you hope your work is received?

My first reaction to the question—I wanted to say I hate essays, but I also hated poetry as a K-12 student too. I think I'll say instead that I hated what I was taught about these forms in school—that straitjacketed 5-paragraph essay—and the way that I completed those essay assignments was to trick myself into giving myself an alternate assignment, something I could get obsessed over. It wasn't until much later I discovered there was a lot more to those forms which I might be interested in exploring.

In my family, my mom doesn't gossip or share much information if she doesn't have to (she operates on a Need-To-Know kind of basis). Alternately, my dad is a fabulist—he often fills in the gaps when he's telling a story or even talking about the history of a place or an animal. It's only because we know him well that we can figure out when he's telling a tall tale. So they are ultimately my models for what I think of as trying to tell a truth—and I alternate always between these various ways of knowing and being. I think because of this, I resist easy identification in poetry and I resist this also in the essay. I didn't know then that I could do this in my writing. Back then, I thought my only recourse was fiction.

Now, I approach my writing by planting clues and seeds for readers to discover, but I am fairly open about how my writing is received. I've learned that each word has its constellation of private and public meanings, networks and intersections. I can control the reception to some extent, but there is always a level of mystery also.

In terms of genre, I often am interested in what the various elements of each genre can bring to the stage of the page I'm working on—and what kind of effect different tweaks can produce. I'm not very loyal to specific genres of writing, but I have noticed that my work raises less eyebrows amongst poets than prose writers. Even if a poet isn't aesthetically pleased with my writing, in my experience, s/he/they has been less likely to dismiss my work as not being a poem, for instance.

Related to that, could you tell me about the zuihitsu form and your attraction to it?

I'm really attracted to the zuihitsu form—and its fungus-like, mutant quality. There's an offbeat-ness to it that I love, which feels like an alternate way to approach that boundary.

I appreciate its chaotic nature, which feels so different from other forms, which are so specific in their strictures. This form seems to me to an elusive form which captures a particular kind of feeling, but which is hard to pin down, unclassifiable. Very queer, in other words!

People are, as you say, much quicker to dismiss something as “not an essay” than they would be to dismiss it as “not a poem,” a dismissal that can often foreclose whatever conversations might have come from the writing. Even more than poetry, then, it sounds like the zuihitsu might offer an openness to you in this regard—like you say, its nature is “chaotic,” unlike other “forms, which are so specific in their strictures.” It makes me think of one problem with the queer label, which is that it can shift from being a way to resist categorization to instead becoming its own form of categorization. You write against your self—do you also write against the interpretation of others? Is your writing conscious of resisting that dismissal that might occur because of genre, or gender, or other categorizations?

Yes, because I think many of us can't help but write against others' interpretations of who we are. In a fundamental way, that is one of the main reasons I began writing—to create my own interpretation of my self, in a sense. But also, No, I don't necessarily write against the interpretation of others because my creative work necessitates that the reader invest themselves into the process to read it. Here, I'm not necessarily speaking of making sense of the work, but of piecing together a kind of map/configuration/constellation which will hopefully speak to them. My intention is to place those specific seeds into the conversation and to choreograph their relationships and specific conversations onto the page, in proximity to each other. In this process, I'm just as interested in how my reader/viewer receives these conversations and what kind of insights they bring to such a process through that process of reading and interpreting.

You open your poetics statement in Troubling the Line by saying “We are switch-boarding our words into each other’s, or into the lines that have been laid.” This recalled to me a bit of what Jackie Wang talked about in the last interview in this series, about “not being much of a literary school-maker,” but also about the books she carries around with her and the kind of sociality that books provide. Do you see yourself as operating in any particular literary traditions, or do you see yourself charting into something else (“change can’t just happen along a continuum that has already been established itself, or it wouldn’t be change,” you also say in the poetics statement).

Before the MFA, I was trained as a writer through community workshops at Kearny Street Workshop, the oldest multi-disciplinary Asian American arts organization in the country. In Maiana Minahal's Waiting For Our Words writing workshop, Maiana centered the words of queer women of color in her teaching and taught us specific poetic forms by writers of color. Since then, the lineage of aesthetics and traditions of writers of color is one which I have most actively pursued by participating in communities such as the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) and Kundiman, the Asian American literary organization. That has been a starting point for the journey, but as I keep growing as a writer, I've realized how much I don't know and how wide this tradition is and I have actively attempted to read into the areas I feel I have gaps. I'm looking to slowly build that constellation of influences and to learn as much as I can.

It's been more difficult uncovering queer and trans literary traditions of color, especially by Asian/Americans so that's what I'm more focused on learning about. I'm more familiar with my peers who are producing wonderful work, but am curious about others who have come before. I think that's part of my work as a writer—to learn about that history and then to write ourselves alongside and in response and also completely apart. Sometimes, if it's not there or you can't find it, then to imagine the words backwards.

Could you name a few of those peers, as well as a few of the others who came before?

Peers doing wonderful work are many and include Margaret Rhee, Ryka Aoki, Soham Patel, Trish Salah, Tamiko Beyer, Ocean Vuong, Vanessa Huang. As I mentioned, those who have come before have been more difficult to trace—some I would consider mentors would be Kazim Ali and Madeleine Lim, who is the founder of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. I've admired the writing of folks such as Larissa Lai, Lawrence Chua, Justin Chin and Alexander Chee.

Writing against the self and as a way to get underneath the surface of obsessions is also interesting considering repetition in your work. People maybe think of repetition as a kind of circling, a retracing of the same movements, but you’re often able to use repetition to perform new movements instead. Could you talk about how that plays out in the manuscript that you’re working on now? Is shifting or queering genre also a way you accomplish this?

In recombinant, the manuscript I'm currently working on, the repetitive process is important because it helps me understand the ghost traces history has left behind. It's part of a larger project which works with Asian diasporic labor, both historical and in the present tense.

In doing research and accessing the archive (for instance, on census documents, Sanborn maps), I create seed fragments and then re-mix or re-combine. I juxtapose them with other seeds to make a new kind of movement, to see what might surface from that process. For me, repeating this process is a way for me to accumulate the material to move the conversation forward and also deal with what is missing in the archive, what is difficult in terms of whose histories, voices, fragments survived and whose didn't. Shifting and queering genre is definitely a strategy for me to tell a non-tellable story. As M. NourbeSe Philip writes, “There is no telling this story; it must be told.”







Monday, April 13, 2015

Steve Wasserman on studiously ignoring what he's supposed to be reading


From: Steve Wasserman
Date: 7 March 2015 at 15:00
To: Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
Subject: PITCH - The Essay That Wrote Itself

Dear Ander and Craig,

I'd like to write a thousand words springing from a title that popped into my head a couple of days back as I was getting my early morning cardiovascular with Noodle in the park: "The Essay That Wrote Itself":

TETWI!

Sounds like a kind of high-spirited bird song, doesn't it? Dartford Warbler? Great Crested Grebe?

There are three pieces I'd like to converse with, reflecting a kind of conceptual Holy Trinity of found (i.e. already written) texts:  
1. Aaron Kunin's "Secret Architecture": the essay writing itself from the sporadic accumulation of one's own thoughts. 
2. Masha Tupitsyn's "Laconia": the essay writing itself from one’s personal twitter feed. 
3. Noah Eli Gordon's "The Source": the essay writing itself from the holdings of Denver Public Library, or any other outpost of Borges/Berners-Lee's Babel.
I think what I want to explore/remind myself in writing this piece is that the kind of essay I like (yours!) comes as much out of the ardour of play as from the ordered iterations of slog. I think I've forgotten that emancipatory notion of late and would like this conversation to take me back into that flow.

Warmly,

Steve

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10 April 2015 

Maybe going back on one’s word is the most dynamic way forward? As in Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts on the artist David Salle, or Evan Lavender-Smith’s book-length essay, substantially made up of unrealised ideas for other projects:

“Essay arguing that Aaron Copeland is the best American composer. Essay arguing that Aaron Copland is the worst American composer…. A critical/theoretical essay, strainedly objective, which disintegrates/evolves into a strained subjectivity.

Does not the existence of aphorisms, lyrical poems, and the pick-and-mix essays on this site show us that pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds are tasty enough in and of themselves without ever being planted, watered, laboured over?


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There is a part of our brain's dorsal attention network that is always four year's old. Ask it to choose three toys to play with, and now to play only with those toys for the rest of the week, and it will quite quickly decide that the purple and green Leapfrog Lettersaurus (Kunin), the orange and white VTech Baby's First Smartphone (Tupitsyn) and the multicoloured Bath Tub Floating Alphabet (Gordon) are the very three things in the whole (Amazon) universe that offer nothing of interest to it. Nothing. This reckoning also cuts into phenomena as disparate as marriage, dissertation topics and whatever pizza you've just chosen from the menu.
  
                Grass --> Greener
                Plate --> Envy
                Current read --> Unread book


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I take my three toys out into the garden shed and spend a few mornings re-reading, making notes, looking for a mise-en-scène that will yolk the three together in a way that might justify my auspicious TETWI title. The problem with the Lettersaurus, and the Smartphone, and the Floating alphabet is that I have chosen them to impress an editorial Super-Ego (aka Ander&Craig), second-guessing their needs and desires, rather than thinking about my own, and so inevitably I run up against this when I start to write. Polite, semi-astute prose, dead on delivery. 

I mean, I deeply admire my pitched texts, and like what they stand for, but the pleasure of their reading is curtailed by lack of identification.

This is how we experience the first frustrating and potentially face-losing volte of The Essay That Wrote Itself. We might call even factor this into the equation: The Essay That Is Fed By Reading Only What It Needs To Read. Or: The Essay That Develops By The Consumption of Everything Else Other Than That Which Is Germane to Its Thesis. The essay as a form of literary procrastination.

TETWI is gimlet-eyed for stuff that slips under the Super-Ego's radar. The most interesting material is that which was intended for another essay’s use. Porn smuggled into prison inside a Good News Bible. An LSD tab under the stamp on your aunt's postcard in response to a request for her lemon-meringue pie recipe. Life-changing sagacity from a radio programme you wouldn’t normally listen to (Farming Today, You and Yours), and don’t listen to, putting it on in the kitchen to keep you company, its superfluous ideas wafting and intermingling with the smell of burnt toast. There lies your treasure.


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In 1970 Walter Mischel offered a 4 year-old at Bing Nursery School (Stanford) two marshmallows if she could defer her greed for fifteen minutes whilst the researcher stepped out of the room leaving one marshmallow on a paper plate squeaking "Eat-me, eat-me, EAT-ME!"

I have promised myself the mallow pleasure of reading JC Hallman's B & Me once I've dutifully written about my texts for Ander and Craig. However, as soon as Hallman becomes available to download (midnight, March 9th), I down my tools and read myself silly for a couple of hours, finding in this Other Text, this Paramour Text everything I'd hoped for but hadn't found in the Educational Toys.

My inner four-year-old loves that this is an essay engrossed, and sometimes grossed-out with bodily and literary fluids. Is this not the pleasure we all seek in text, that moment when our bodies (eyes, ears, skin, fingers) pursue their own ideas, their own greedy inclinations? Are not our first gifts, pace Freud, bodily products?


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I spend the next day studiously ignoring the Letterausaurus, Smartphone, and Floating Alphabet, to finish reading B & Me, indubitably proving that I would have snarfed the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room and then whined for a whole bag of sweet and spongy nonessentials all the way home.

If you recognise yourself in this vignette, you're probably one of the “Low Delayers”, who couldn't or wouldn't wait fifteen minutes for a treat. All of us now adults in our 40s, numbering in our cohort levels of obesity, alcoholism, and poor career prospects exponentially greater than the “High Delayers”: who thanks to a finer nature or nurture, were able to put their gratification on hold as children; who now as adults dream up book projects, and then write them.


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TETWI is OK with me going off-piste to guzzle 288 pages of Hallman. I'm sure even Kunin, Tupitsyn, and Gordon would be OK with it. JC (Hallman) is most definitely OK with it. "Literature must do whatever it's not supposed to do, and literature about literature must do the same,” battle-cries the creative/autobiographical/confessional critic. This cheers me up a bit.

But what would JC have done wrt the marshmallows? I suspect that a 4 year-old JC would have waited it out. Yes, Hallman would have emerged from the shed with a clever roman à clef about the Lettersaurus, the Plastic Smartphone, the Floating Alphabet, and two uneaten marshmallows, and a post-coital grin on his face.

In the swept-away pleasures of reading a book one admires, there can also be a kind of self-punishment borne of envy. The Punitive Parent, the Super-Ego, the Inner-Critic claw and scowl at the gratified, doting warmth we feel towards the writer and his text with slurs calcified by uncompromising clichés: “Nothing writes itself. No gains without pains. Mind over matter. Get a grip on yourself/your theme/your essay. Godamnit.”

TETWI, and B & Me too I think, seem more interested in nurturing states adjacent to, or even free of these clamped cognitions. Perhaps the "Literary Arousal" Hallman suggests is the key, which he keeps alive throughout his project by reading Baker’s work for the first time, having decided to write about him before having read anything by him. In this way we might avoid stepping back into work we’ve already taught or thought about, texts killed by poring over them with pen in hand, or by having pitched your best ideas on them to the editorial Super-Ego. If that means the Barthesian bump-and-grind jouissance we seek at both a textual and semantic level manifests more often than not in a masturbatory fashion, well so be it. "Feeling something very deeply and so compelled to shoot it ecstatically forth into the world" is a messy business, often beyond the pale.


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TETWI’s voice is frequently ejaculatory, though not necessarily in an ecstatic or gendered way. Rather: more rounded, playful, inviting-of-paradox, minutiae-focused, and most especially, kind.

I hear TETWI speaking in the voice of Adam Phillips as he reads his essay “Against Self-Criticism” to us at The British Museum. Listen, if you haven’t already, to the tone of this ETWI, the well-disposed, betwixt and between thrum of it. Although what he is saying is also relevant to our theme:

"As fundamentally ambivalent animals, we're never as good as we should be, and neither it seems are other people"
and
"Ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us."
and
"We are, by definition, forbidden to find all this forbidding forbidden. Indeed we find ways of getting pleasure from our restrictedness."

Phillips says, and would like us to believe, that all his texts are Essays That Wrote Themselves:

“I admire people who struggle to articulate things, but I’m not one of those people—for me it’s more like automatic writing….I do psychoanalysis four days a week and I write one day a week, in the middle….Psychoanalysis is really difficult; writing is not, for me.” (Interview with Sameer Padania in BOMB magazine).

TETWI would like us to hold true to the notion that reading and writing need not be as fraught, as “difficult” for us as we might imagine, even though still requiring a certain kind of effort. I like the spirit of this, and I find it in everyone I’ve cited throughout this piece. I would like to get closer to this state myself. But as of yet, the how of the thing escapes me. 



 Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist living in London. He is currently working on a series of essays about change (changing ourselves, the world, our minds). Some of these have been published here and there. @stevewasserman_ 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Guest Editors Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen on Brevity's Special Issue on Gender


Brevity is about to launch our second special issue, this one focused on experiences of gender. The first, Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count, focused on the important contributions of female writers to the creative nonfiction movement. Brevitys Founding Editor, Dinty W Moore, who was proud of our VIDA count (which is always excellent), conceived of the first special issue as a one-time thing, something to help raise awareness of the fact that women are still under-represented in literary publishing. Published in 2012, the issue sparked a number of productive conversations about women in publishing and brought strong, important new works to our readers. Because of the positive response to this issue, we decided to explore the possibility of doing other special issues, both to encourage conversation about important issues and to ensure we are working to increase the presence of authors from under-represented communities. 
The gender issue of Brevity was conceived in that vein, and we hope it will be a starting point for many readers.  The conversation about gender has been shifting dramatically within the queer community, and in academia, for yearsdecades, evenbut it has rarely moved into the mainstream.  When it has, people have struggled to find their place in it.  Its not always easy to join in, regardless of where your identity falls on the gender spectrum.  We want to give our readers road mapsnot just one, but severalfor how to enter this complicated, ever-changing, incredibly important conversation. 
Essays are uniquely suited for this purpose.  They arent meant to help the writer convince or persuade the reader; they are meant to help the writer interrogate their own thinkingtheir own experiences, their own prejudices and beliefsand to come out on the other side having been changed by the act of writing it.  The end point of a personal essay isnt an answerits a better, more nuanced, more informed, more complicated question than what sparked the writers interest in the first place.  We are looking for essays that approach gender from this standpoint: essays that push and interrogate, explore and expand our definitions and understandings of gender.
Because the special issues are outside our normal way of operating, there are challenges. We have to do special outreach projects to communities of writers who traditionally do not often submit to Brevity. We recruit guest editors who write from those communities, in order to be certain that were representing the voices of those communities in an inclusive, sensitive way. And, unlike our other issues, we have an anchor author for each special issuesomeone whose work we admire and feel represents the best writing about the subject of our inquiry. Kate Bornstein is writing the keystone piece for our special gender issue and Claudia Rankine is giving us new work for our 2016 issue on race, racism, and racialization. This is all very exciting for us, but its a little beyond our usual operating budget.
To be able to accomplish these goals, weve launched the first-ever large scale fundraiser to support the work of Brevity. For the last 18 years, the journal has largely been funded out of Dintys pocket, and it was a little scary to reach beyond that. We know that Brevity is important to many different parts of the reader/writer community. Writing teachers often let us know that its a central text in their classrooms. Readers write to tell us how much specific essays, or the journal in general, mean to them. Writers tell us that the pieces they publish in Brevity are the ones that get the most attention and the largest readership. Still, we werent sure if this would translate into a willingness to help us raise the money to do these special issues.
Were relieved to say it looks like our readers/writers are willing to help us do this new kind of issue, and excited by the response so far. Many of our authors have generously donated signed books, essay critiques, and even a four-week workshop as rewards for backers. Many others have become backers themselves. Some incredibly generous folk have done both. Were deeply moved by the response. That said, we are also still several thousand dollars away from our goal, and we hope youll help us out, too, by contributing to our Kickstarter. We think these special issues are important, and that they help grow the literary conversation and the people involved in it, that has been central to Brevitys mission for the last 18 years. 
___________________
Sarah Einstein, former Managing Editor of Brevity, is the author of MOT: A MEMOIR (University of Georgia Press 2015), REMNANTS OF PASSION (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere, and have earned an AWP Intro Journals Project Award and a notable mention in the 2014 Best American Essays.  He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hallie Owen: Goodbye to All That, again and again


When did we stop being so young, Joan and I?

Drawing parallels is a familiar pastime of mine and I’m pleased to find one where I can stand momentarily alongside Joan Didion. On one side: me, reading any essay from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, especially “Goodbye To All That”—to be more specific, if I can: this is the experience of reading an essay for the first time, wandering into it and feeling an emotion never felt before wash over me, something that I know is actually created, not from what I bring to the words as a reader, but by what they pass on to me. On the other side: the relationship with New York City that Didion describes herself as embracing, then enduring, then finally letting go.

Anyone who has read “Goodbye to All That” understands Didion’s side of the parallel. My side is less renowned. I was living in Iowa City when I first read the essay and I imagine it was late Spring, that I was sitting outside the English-Philosophy Building on a low brick wall facing the Iowa River, that I was finishing my sophomore year in college and starting to feel like I might belong anywhere outside Washington, Iowa, the tiny town I grew up in, just 30 miles away from Iowa City. It might as well have been 3,000: the town square, the two mile stretch of four lane highway bisecting the town that we drove up and down, the geometry so very unforgiving. Few words really mattered there. Iowa City seemed to be made of circles that stretched further and further, circles that I began to fill with words, my own words, other people’s words.

I read so many of the lines in this essay over and over again and shook my head in wonder. What I felt wasn’t a reinforcement or corroboration of something already experienced, a form of empathy or identification with a story or an emotion; instead it seemed a harbinger of something to come, something I knew that I would feel someday. How I knew this at that time, I’m not sure. I was absolutely certain back then that I could never create anything so lovely and also that I would never read anything in the same way again. It was heady, dizzying and slightly overwhelming. It was a place that I went to and became lost in for a while.

As I re-read the essay today, now a few years past the age of fifty, back in school and studying Didion once again, I conclude that there is not a lackluster, filler line in the entire essay. It all counts: every evocative image, every probing and retreating sentence, every sculpted phrase and precise word.

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” 

When I first fell under the spell of this line, which arrives about halfway through “Goodbye To All That,” I am certain I was only nineteen. I assume that our Expository Writing professor assigned us an essay by Didion that I liked, probably something like “On Keeping a Notebook” and then when browsing at the bookstore I ran across Slouching Towards Bethlehem and bought it. But I was nineteen, I’m sure, and because of that, as I’m thinking back now, my reaction to this line seems curious, because at nineteen, nothing, or very little at least, is irrevocable.

I would return to this line over and over again through the years, as if testing it, dipping my toes in the cool running stream to judge the depth and the current. At 25, unpacking books in a mobile home just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, watching my two toddlers building shaky block towers and bridges on the floor around me, my writing time dwindling into occasional poems and short journal entries, I searched through the worn pinkish-orange paperback with the title and author lettered in gold (no graphics, none needed) for the line that had been such a beacon. I wasn’t sure at first which essay it was even in or exactly what it said, but I knew when I found it. I knew it was a test, something to weigh. Did things count yet? Yes, there were some things that were irrevocable at that point in my life, mostly those two little children building a city at my feet. But still, so much was ahead and unwritten.

Unpacking the books again, this time in Texas, suddenly I was midway through my 30’s, with three children, first house, first managerial job. The cover bore smudges and stains, almost totally obliterating the “Sl” and the “g” in “Slouching” and the pages became more brown and brittle each year. Why didn’t I buy a new copy? I began to count those things that seemed irrevocable and the list became longer and heavier. When did that happen? So many decisions made that could not be unmade. I wrote beautiful grant proposals and memos. Over the next twenty years, I would pull out “Goodbye to All That” again and again, search for the line, and remember when I first read it, of the feeling of being nineteen and of knowing that nothing that I’d done yet really counted. Now it counted. Perhaps it had always counted, every moment, from the very first “That was the year...” But like Didion, I failed to note that instant when looking back began to get in the way of moving forward. We wanted to know: when did we stop being so young, both Joan and I?

Throughout the essay, and as she accomplishes through so much of her work, Didion alternates between sketching in light pencil a haunting sense of regret, of longing and desire, then painting lush, vivid images that engage and stretch and excite the senses: the taste of a peach, the lustre of yards and yards of yellow theatrical silk drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm, the smell of a particular perfume or jasmine soap or spicy crabs boiling. I would venture that it was her ability to create those images, to evoke that emotion, that led me to understand (no, to feel) the power a writer wields to connect the minds and emotions of readers. I had little knowledge of the mechanics of that art at nineteen, what it would cost me to begin to understand, how little I was able to pay at the time and what the interest payments would eventually add up to. Still, reading that line again makes me shake my head in amazement, but the feeling springs from a different place now, perhaps from the acute perception that I’ll never be able to read it the same way again. At nineteen, how could I ever have known I would feel this?

Joan left New York for Los Angeles and my parallel seems to falter here so I will leave it behind and stand by myself. Somewhere along the way I stopped my measuring and testing of all that was behind me, though that same line from “Goodbye to All That” that almost quite literally stopped me in my tracks long ago still lifts off the page as I read it. Today I see the beauty in what was lost, the joy in the regret. I see the new beginning at the end, but I would still trade it all, the layered, textured wisdom, the governed passion, for that wonder I felt at nineteen, for a clean pinkish-orange cover and fresh golden letters.



Hallie Owen is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas, focusing on creative nonfiction and poetry. The first half of her life (as a librarian and public administrator) has been devoted to ensuring that people have equal access to information and literature that supports and enriches their lives. She hopes for the second half to be spent creating (and helping others create) new works of literature that readers will want to have access to.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Nathaniel Rosenthalis: Notes on Sontag


1.


Reading Susan Sontag makes me feel bossy. Arguing against any indifference to aesthetics or ethics, she is always in the middle of persuading me with her avidity, and sometimes her leaping is over some ground that doesn’t really exist or has yet to be laid, but the way she leaps is often persuasive because it’s assertive, and I like assertiveness; it’s a break from my daily world self, where mild-to-wild surmising is the rule.

Susan Sontag’s a great essayist; she’s a fair fictioneer. But she hungered after fiction in a way she never did about any other kind of material. “I want to sing!” she wrote in her later journals. When I go sentence by sentence through her essays, I can see how she does—her bald, pointy thoughts assert a fluid melody of argument. Only later in her life did she acknowledge that the aims of her fiction and her essays were close to the same: “It’s almost frightening,” she told an interviewer.

David Rieff, her son, writes in his memoir that when, at 71, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, she maintained up until her death an unstoppable drive; she was intent on producing her greatest fiction—she saw it there in the future, and she was hardly one to think herself unable to accomplish it. To be an ambitious writer like Sontag requires the ability to change your mind at any time, and to believe, somehow, in your own fatedness. You will say what you need to say—to swing at that one point you eye in the soil that, when you break it, will break.


2.

 
I am obsessed with bodies; every day when I wake up I get out of bed and go down the hallway to the bathroom and pass a floor-length mirror and usually don’t pass up the opportunity to look at myself (especially if I worked out the day before)—embarrassing to admit, but it’s true.

I begin most days by jerking off—if I turn on my computer, I scroll down Tumblr pages where I look at updates from over a hundred gay porn sites. Lean builds or muscular beefy forms or ones in between in their twenties or thirties or forties or fifties; men in arrangements of one or two or three or four or more, posed in almost classical arcs, hands on each other, or not; eyes looking at each other, or not, looking at the looker, i.e. me—the eyes are blank or full of absolutes—desire, energy, wildness.

Jerking off and looking at porn are a kind of impersonality (the experience is obviously more personal without porn). Afterwards follows a backwards-looking revelation: I look at myself and what I was just looking at or thinking of or imagining. I feel disconnected from my body.

In high school this kind of body worship manifested in my drawings. My favorite choice of subject was the nude form, and I usually drew women, although I started to draw men in my senior year. One drawing in particular I worked on for a few weeks—I had used the grid method, which involved laying a 9x9 grid on my source picture, and a 9x9 grid on my large sheet of paper, then working box by box on transferring the gradient values to my paper from my source picture, a guy named Chad from a site called RandyBlue. The method is a common enough tool for beginning artists who are learning to see subjects in terms of their visual information (lights, darks, shadows, negative space, et cetera). That drawing I still have but I could never get rid of the grid entirely—it was laughably obvious I had used porn as my source.

When I see a man I desire, I both want him and want to be him—this is a trope of same-sex desire narratives. I have invariably become a viewer of bodies everywhere I go; I observe the shapes they make as they move with and without clothes.

It’s an adolescent perspective; the beginner is present.

3.

Susan Sontag’s The Pornographic Imagination roots its tremendous polemicisms in the occasion of reviewing two French books translated into English at the time, The Story of O and The Image. I’m not interested in pornographic literature, as Sontag was, as a way of spotlighting the dismissive attitude of English and American critics toward pornographic work (including the work of genuine literary merit, argues Sontag). But I am interested in the implications of the failure of the capitalist system to nourish the imaginations of its citizens. This failure looms huge, as art lets us imagine alternatives to the world we live in—alternatives we can critique and inhabit in equal turns (or so goes one of today’s common defenses of art and art making, issued by many, from poets like Ann Lauterbach to science fiction writers like Ursula K. Leguin).

The idea of what constitutes a healthy mind is at stake here: addictions, anxieties, melancholia inflict themselves on our wares. Which is not to say that we need to monitor, control, evict, guard our minds, but that we need to consider the mind’s forays, its own curiosities; I was about to say “natural” curiosities in order to do what many do by evoking that easy word—to endow it with beneficent aura, as trees or sweet plums. But I’m the last to deny the way culture shapes desires. I need to know our range of materials, the way those materials empower our ability to move over time among forms of response—solace, anger, and a sense of humor, by which I mean not merely jokes or cleverness (though those are fun) but rather the delicacy of consciousness whose uptick is a kind of perfume.

The question of radical will is ever urgent for me; I don’t feel the urge to make heresies for their own sake—which is always the move of a false imitation of an idea of the avant-garde. I want to make the kinds of leaps that feel necessary and in some way—it surprises me to say it—instruct the reader. Unnecessary work has a heart of small-time ironies, easy conclusions, easy personalisms, complacence up the wazoo. Which is not to say that great work can’t draw upon irony, satire, or other ‘decadent’ devices—it certainly can, and maybe the work I want to make is about energy and movement as well as personality.

What’s been key to me is learning how to connect acrobatic acts of consciousness—extended wordplay, loopy dream logics, anything-goes syntactic arrangements, motivated by the feeling of laughter in my mind, maybe not outloud—to grounded emotional truthiness, where the red fern grows, so to speak. All I have to be is a truth-teller. My next great lesson will be to pay attention to what bodies do in various removes—local, digital, lexical. Which is not to say that watching porn will help me make radical art (although maybe it does for some people; pornography has been the occasion or genre convention to bounce back on for the likes of Mapplethorpe to some contemporary poets like Dorothea Lasky). I understand erotics to be about feeling in a way that pornography often is not. But I say that anything goes—no detail is trivial; the failure isn’t in the given details but rather in the artist’s inability to make those details spin.

Art, religion, sex—each is a total world. Religion and pornography, in particular, are ruled by an internal logic and power relations; they are both marked by eternally reptitious energy, brands of absolutism. They exact transcendence as well as a kind of revenge on consciousness—an evacuation of ego. They perpetuate themselves. So says Sontag:

“No wonder, then, that the new or radically revamped forms of the total imagination which have arisen in the past century—notably, those of the artist, the erotomane, the left revolutionary, and the madman—have chronically borrowed the prestige of the religious vocabulary. And total experiences, of which there are many kinds, tend again and again to be apprehended only as revivals or translations of the religious imagination. To try to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level, heading off the religious encapsulation, is one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.”

Serious, ardent, and enthusiastic. I am working on it, Susan.

4.

When it comes to the poets, my mother reveres Robert Frost; for the essayists she has found a staggering enthusiasm for Christopher Hitchens, the fabled atheist critic (the day he died, I had just come home for a winter break in college; my mom and I sat on stools at a bar in the Mexican restaurant La Tolteca; she sighed over a beer; the end of her voice had a droop and a waver; she blinked back tears: “To lose such a voice—such a voice—”). It’s not unusual for American Jews to be unreligious, or even devoutly atheist; but my mother, born and raised a Catholic Portuguesa in Fall River, Massachusetts, converted to Judaism after marrying a Jew, so I found myself surprised when an atheistic air began steeling our conversations.

I’ve also seen my mom cry in happiness, if that’s what it is. Last year we were at dinner at an Indian restaurant in North Wilmington (lots of shopping and dining, money in the air like a lavender nonchalance). I pulled out an interview with Adam Phillips, who cites the British Psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone.” Here’s what I read aloud to her:

There’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can ‘forget yourself’ and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose.
I looked up to see my mother smiling at me with tears in her eyes; I had made a point of bringing up this interview because, that evening, my mother had entered a dark mood of doubting her worth; she’s shared with my sister and me darker thoughts—of suicide, of not wanting to live anymore; of feeling herself to be a burden on my sister and me and herself—so I did the best I could, in that moment, to show her what she meant to me, in, at least, that way. She had enabled me to be a writer.

I could also say these dark thoughts were her most illuminated. She sometimes remarks that she hates sunlight because it illuminates—in our cramped house—grime and stain and poor form, unkemptness. The house she lives in now is very small compared to the looming upscale townhouse we lived in before that, and before that, in what—to my childhood mind— was a mansion: four floors, seven and a half bathrooms, four fireplaces, a half basketball court in the backyard. And my parents bought it; they had saved up for it after my dad’s fledgling import-export business started doing well in the mid-1990s.

Soon the mansiony dream house filled up with despair—my father passed away two weeks after we moved in (I was eight, it was my sister’s fifteenth birthday). Since then, my mother’s life—up to that point upheld by my father, whom she relied on for energy, for the lead—has collapsed. So when she had looked at me, moved by the passage and my feelings about it, it was bittersweet. Our word bittersweet is, in Greek, glukupikron; literally translated, sweetbitter.

5.

I have my vision—the work has energy, takes the lead.

In the meantime, I’m self-conscious about being too literary, about being too self-conscious of the artiness of my enterprise, which is also a part of my duty; the duty of the self-conscious is to avoid mere embarrassment and opt for the greater self-awareness. This shame of identifying as an artist has to do with a feeling of inadequacy. What you want is to make the terms of the world inadequate (because you’re frustrated with capitalism, with patriarchy, with the stupid ideas of how bodies are supposed to be and look and connect with each other) and you want to make the terms of the world adequate (because you like a lot about living; you have your dark thoughts—suicide, just run-of-the-mill depressive episodes where everything is mellow and distant—but you recognize the capacity for transforming outermost realities, be it your body through obsessive fitness or your output of work, shaping art-poem experiments).

For example.

Before I moved from Brooklyn to St. Louis, I published a chapbook of poems for friends and family. My sister’s response:
btw there's a quote in there about violence that is sooo fucking good- I thought you wrote it and that you were becoming an explicitly political poet and then I saw it was someone elses work. I still like it. And I love your words/what you have to say! Eek- cool on making a book.

I was annoyed because I could tell if I had written work that was “explicitly political,” she would have been totally into it. She doesn’t understand poetry, she’s told me. Many people feel the same way. It frustrates me. But I kept my hat on. My response:

yeah, that ben lerner epigraph is amazing, right? he's fantastic. he's at brooklyn college. there are moments in the book that are pretty political (see the first exercise poem about hierarchies and monsters). it takes skill to write explicitly political poetry without sounding self-righteous or whiney—or like you’re telling a sympathetic audience what it already knows or believes. and lerner does that extremely extremely well.

6.

Hurricane Sandy struck New York City on October 29, 2012, causing many billions of dollars in damage. That day I kept to my bedroom in my fifth-floor apartment in Washington Heights, reading Sontag’s journals; my envy only stopped after I reached 1958, when Sontag was older and therefore her amazing wisdom, her reckless ambition, was less threatening. I could relax my comparisons.
I am now twenty-five (I have been for a little over three months). Here is an entry from the year Sontag was twenty-five.

12/31/57 
Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.
Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that, too? With a little ego-building—such as the fait accompli this journal provides—I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said. 
My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

Now here’s an entry from my journal, January 25, 2014, when I was living in Brooklyn:

January 25, 2014 
Just read some passages of Plath’s unabridged journal (thank Gigi for messaging you recently, mentioning how she likes them) and like the way she writes as a 27y.o., and the January – February entries when she was 24/25 are solid. Plath having lived in many places by then, and yet still hadn’t done the writing she thought that such traveling and living abroad would bring about. 
Maybe I too need to write a novel—get out of the language space and into the character space. Problem is that my sense of character is entirely given over to affect, too influenced by the qualities of voices I notice and like. The British accent, the affected feminine lisp, the wide-eyed Victorian posture of Alice in Wonderland, the Virginia Woolf way—these are strategies of drag, as I notice them. And to write a novel about drag queens and kings would be stunted and predictable from the start.  
Potential subjects—my writing life (too literary, too many traps set up), my sex life (too crude). I should be able to write—then that boring old flag in my window: you can write about anything as long as you do it well. Thus the parade for sincerity begins. For realism. I may be sincere, I may be real. I may be neither of those things. “Oh how you talk! Such nonsense,” says Alice. At the door with her axe of metaphor. 
Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. I see it on my big white bookshelf. It’s at a lean, as if considering me. What say you. Can I say that? At some point I really just have to stop ruminating about writing and just write—these journals don’t count. They only, at parts like now, reinforce my self-consciousness. The pikes fall and I’m prisoner. 
I walk around thinking of the same things over and over—fantasies. Fantasies are the…but I don’t want to be a philosopher. I just wanna sing.

7.

Sontag and I diverge in key respects. I’m not a moralist writer (I don’t think) so I don’t quite hear the call of war, poverty, natural catastrophe, accidents, disaster, and decay—not in the way that others like Sontag do. I find my way to issues of moral urgency through their stakes in imagination—hence my drive to examine representations, to absorb their means, so I can do my own kinds of responses as well as be a sensitive inhabitor of my own times. Nor have I shown myself to be a generalist yet (in some ways it would be dreadful to keep going on in my narrow interests; I hope I’ll diversify).

The idea of the poet is odd too; it survives in public consciousness as an anachronistic model of justice and beauty. When Sontag mentions the poet in her early essays, it’s to examine the changing ways that different arts have been interpreted over time. In The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag dissects Valery’s idea that prose is communication and poetry the ineffable—this, she says, is “naively unhistorical,” as the ineffable had been considered long before then not as the reward of poetry but rather as the singular effect of religious discourse (also philosophy). In the space of an essay like this I’ll take up the historicist cue, or I’ll take it up if I’m having a conversation with someone about ideas, and it occurs to me that I might be able to surprise it from behind with a timeline. But in my reading life I tend to disavow it—I enjoy reading poems for the kind of amazing feeling of nonthinking.

And of course I want my family and friends to be able to understand my poetry. It’s for other people—not just myself. (There’s this great moment in an interview I watched on Youtube where a journalist asks Sontag whether she cares if people read her work and Sontag—rightly so—bursts out in great offense—“Well of course the book is for people!”) This past July I had lunch with a college friend in Chinatown. I told her I didn’t have a title yet for my book, which had a long center poem full of inside jokes and my friends’ names; —and then I told her I’d just name that poem and the book after her—she laughed. She was shocked when she received her copy of Maddy a few weeks later.

When I sent the chapbook to my mom, her enthusiastic response gave me my heart back. She was enjoying what I was doing—which amazed me and gladdened me, because for years I’d shared my work with her and, when I visited home, read aloud the work of poets I loved. Usually she looked confused in response to my writing and the work of those poets. So it was a relief to me to get her happy emails. I was getting somewhere—I was approaching my ideal.

8.

My mother’s quip about the wait staff at an upscale hipster pizzeria in St. Louis:



9.

When I’m not writing, I hold on to what other people tell me of my abilities. Some that I can recall off the top of my head:

“You don’t think like this [10th grade English teacher Mr. Gerken draws a straight line down the air], you think like this [he draws a circular shape in the air]
“Your poems’ endings have that great thing of inevitability. That’s a great talent” [Bernadette Mayer, when I studied with her for a weekend this past May]
“You gave me over thirty ways that bananas and oranges are alike, but you failed to say that they’re both fruits.” [A doctor who was discussing with my mother and me the results of an IQ test I took in high school to qualify for extended time for tests]
I’m super-aware of my circles now; I wonder if I don’t take enough risks; I question every ending now under the pressure of a presumed talent. I’m wary always of forests and trees. Knowledge from others about your self becomes full of itself very quickly, and it tips more on one side, making you lopsided.


10.

 
What I admire about Sontag is her sense of middleness. In her Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott, Sontag goes into her frustration about the general trend of attitudes of certain critics or public opinion about “low art”—shifting from dismissal because of ignorance to dismissal because of presumed knowledge. Maybe Sontag could be a contrarian, but she was always putting ideas or works of art in dialogue with each other, with precursors, and with herself. I’d never thought about dialectics in terms of compassion, but as a writer and interviewee, Sontag was all about refusing to take absolute sides—to always try for different positions, to be alert and responsive. I like this—and it seems the key to radical work.

If I want to make radical work—and I do—how will I do it? It would seem that radical work can’t be forced out of you—isn’t just a matter of will. I think about it a lot but I don’t know if I’ve really written any radical work. The accident has to fall on the right design; tone will out. By radical I mean work that is both at the root and also gets at the root. Poetry that’s radical challenges inherited ideas about poems, ideas that have built up over time or perhaps fallen away: a poem must mean, it must seduce, it must tell a story, it must have meter, it must have rhyme, it must be free of verse, it must make sense, it must make no sense, it must horrify, it must veer toward the ineffable, it must be beautiful, it must work through ugly feelings, it must not try to create new feelings—that would be perverse; it must be perverse, it must not contain any part that doesn’t contribute to its reception and interpretation, it mustn’t do anything, it must consist of whole fragments, it must disavow subjectivity because of capitalism, it must be saturated in subjectivity because of capitalism, it must be original, it must not be original, it must not give a shit, it must only see the world as it will be in the future, it must care about the world as it is, it must make noise, it must comply. At any given time in our age, any of these ideas can become fresh—depending on how stale everything else is. But none of these vectors pinpoint what is so crucial about all radical art.

Radical art occurs between the artwork and the audience, the former needled enough that the latter is agitated. What role does pleasure have in the work of dissent? I’d think the best works of dissert are also intensely pleasurable. To that end, I wonder what the ends of consciousness are, and whether I should risk reaching them. After Bernadette Mayer concluded her project Memory, where she documented and photographed 36 images a day for a month, she had what she describes as a psychic breakdown, and had to go to a psychoanalyst. It turned out to be fruitful for her work, but as someone who already has mental health issues I have to evaluate that kind of risk for myself.

And we can bring up pleasure in terms of sex, too, the way Sontag does in the Rolling Stone interview to postulate what it means to play with fire. She was thinking of sadochism and masochism specifically: “People have understood that it can get out of control and be completely destructive."

But I’m not interested in the way sex and consciousness—as experiments, as paths with certifiable ends—can lead to ruination, flames, and pain. I’m committed to the idea of making the world livable and making a life in the world.

The risks in art-making—it’s a subject I think about frequently, and one that Sontag touches upon in The Pornographic Imagination. “However fierce may be the outrages the artist perpetrates upon his audience,” argues Sontag, “his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience’s sense… of the outrages he commits upon himself.” Then comes this declaration: “The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.” I have no desire to glamorize mental illness, nor, at all, does Sontag. The link between madness and art is that they occupy the prestige of the spiritual, of awe itself. What is it about spirituality that just won’t stop informing how we conceive, make, and absorb art? If spirituality is a project we constantly redefine, our allegiances shift in response. Our allegiance to pleasure, to silence, and to each other (or more often, to our annihilation, which drives sex) is in constant flux, and in that flux is a hollow where I think I’ll play to make my work. Call me indulgent, but that’s where I’m at.
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11.

Sontag’s later essay “The Poet’s Prose” shocks me. I am shocked. As I type this out, I feel both relief and humiliation, as it seems I’m (too much?) in line with my precursors.
“Poet’s prose not only has a particular fervor, density, velocity, fiber. It has a distinctive subject: the growth of the poet’s vocation.”
“Typically, it takes the form of two kinds of narrative. One is directly autobiographical. The other, also in the shape of a memoir, is the portrait of another person, either a fellow writer (often of the older generation, and a mentor), or a beloved relative (usually a parent or grandparent). Homage to others is the complement to accounts of oneself: the poet is saved from vulgar egoism by the strength and purity of his or her admirations. In paying homage to the important models and evoking the decisive encounters, both in real life and in literature, the writer is enunciating the standards by which the self is to be judged.”
“Poet’s prose is mostly about being a poet. And to write such autobiography, as to be a poet, requires a mythology of the self. The self described is the poet’s self, to which the daily self (and others) is often ruthlessly sacrificed. The poet self is the real self, the other one is the carrier; and when the poet self dies, the person dies. (To have two selves is the definition of a pathetic fate.) Much of the prose of poets—particularly in the memoiristic form—is devoted to chronicling the triumphant emergence of the poet self. (In the journal or diary, the other major genre of the poet’s prose, the focus is on the gap between the poet and the daily self, and the often untriumphant transactions between the two. The diaries—for example, Baudelaire’s or Blok’s—abound with rules for protecting the poet self; desperate maxims of encouragement; accounts of dangers, discouragements, and defeats.)”
“In prose the poet is always mourning a lost Eden; asking memory to speak, or sob.”
“A poet’s prose is the autobiography of ardor.”

12.

Sontag claims that her Notes on Camp made a breakthrough because she was alone in maintaining a traditional literary sensibility and an interest in the open and kitsch forms of the art world at the time. I’m not in a similar literary or historical slot, and even if I were, I wouldn’t want to be a critic or a “happy pedagogue” as one professor in college described me; my brain can do too much messiness well enough, and I don’t want to have any responsibility to adequately liberalized mores—social or political or academic.

Fortunately, there are no more errors to be made and so no unnecessary lessons to be given. Any good work I produce will mediate the following problem: if I suffer, what else can I do? Rilke urged to the young poet in many letters—you must write only if you must write. Which in its tone lends a religiosity that approaches a worshipful silent horizon; I love the human figure, too, but I see it outside of the dropdown of shining hierarchies and am more interested in bouncing the ball off of traditional art walls. Why—why not? Work, at this point in my life, is the only way to Live. Or, alternatively put, when I read bad work, I feel full. When I read great work, I feel hungry.


Nathaniel Rosenthalis was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. He earned his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a candidate in the M.F.A. poetry program at Washington University in St. Louis. His poems have appeared in Yes, Poetry and he has an essay forthcoming from the Los Angeles Review of Books. His first chapbook will appear in the spring from Deadly Chaps Press.