For this series of posts, I’m interested in looking at some of the essay’s queer history and potential. Most of my favorite essayists, contemporary and historical, are queer, a fact that I think is more than the coincidence of my own gravitation to queer modes. These writers are also quick to employ hybrid-genre or genre-resistant forms. In favor of the particular and the intimate over the general, I thought the best way to explore these traditions would be to speak to contemporary writers who I see as engaging with them. I begin with Douglas A. Martin, the writer of Branwell, Your Body Figured, and They Change the Subject, among others.
T Clutch Fleischmann: I first read your work in a graduate course on the essay, but I know that’s not the genre-lens through which most people approach it. I found an interview where you suggest you’d like readers to view your writing just as “literature” and another where you talk about formerly seeing yourself as a poet, while your publishing trajectory has obviously shifted genres. So could we open with that topic—as you set the terms for your own writing and reading, how does genre play into it all?
Douglas A. Martin: I like when things don't stay in their supposed places. And then how does that come into the work, formally or thematically, or both, that’s something I try to work with.
What class was it? I know Branwell has made its way onto some syllabi. And the title story of They Change the Subject, as an example of a story in vignettes. I do know that has been taught. That story there to me is in part an essay, on thinking within the pose of hustling.
How attempts to define create points to push around, against...
TCF: The graduate course was the Essay Prize course where we read Branwell. I remember that those Aaron Kunin Secret Architecture journals were taught, too, and something by Bruce Hainley. It was a really robust list, I think.
DAM: I love a ton the book Letter Machine Editions did of Kunin's.
I tend to proceed into thinking--and by this I mean writing--working against assumptions, prejudices even--of any given genres. I will sometimes be in a story and think how and in what ways, addressing what, can it also be an essay? On what? That gives a kind of focal point for me and another relief. Or maybe the plot of something is reaching for poetry, essaying toward it, in that attempt sense and also movement one of the word.
It has always struck me as odd or unfair, shortsighted or unimaginative, that when people will ask me what I write they will want it to be one thing or another. Like you can say poetry and perhaps not be pressed further, or novels and then it goes to like, what kind, what about what? About language, I think I have even answered before.
TCF: Do you identify as a queer writer? You said once that you prefer the term Homosexual for yourself because of its romantic implications.
DAM: Above all, what I want as a writer is to maintain a kind of versatility. And maybe I feel more at home in the solitary, that's what I know, more so than the experience of some utopian sociability.
Queer as a discourse was meant to be inclusive and bridging, while also troubling, but it can also become pretty and increasingly vacuous when devolved down to more about defining who is or isn’t one or not because of agreed upon usage of language. If someone wants to call me one, call it because they see it that way, I'm cool with that. Yeah. I don't feel like I own my interpretation.
I like a sentence that flips. "I don't care, we can just have vanilla boyscout sex forever," that’s one of the sexiest things ever said to me. Still I can't get away from my biography. We didn't. When I say or think "homosexual," I just feel a charge of honesty, a recognition not pointing to some supposed model of liberation, but how my life actually is lived and embodied in day-to-day.
TCF: I like that you don’t feel like you own your interpretation. That sits counter to a lot of the contemporary conversation around identity in queer communities, where it’s considered paramount to allow people to own their interpretations. Do you think you can maintain the most versatility from the solitary (the homo) position? I mean this question both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of queerness, sexuality, whatever.
DAM: But even that word, “homo,” is not a great fit for me, because I feel a toughness there. I guess I like the sexual along with it, like a compliment of how you get out of being one, just one, or just everything. I don't trust group mentalities no matter the proposed allegiances.
It is hard for me. This could just be how I was brought up, with no people.
I see myself in like the desire of Genet, what happens in the mind, not necessarily the body (politic).
It's more about the past than the future, what memory is left in a moment, and that’s maybe what I mean by romantic, that I've been here all along, how I feel it that I’m not inventing, procreating, joining up to enter into an exacting correlation of signs.
TCF: I want to talk about the literary traditions you see yourself as working in, and Kathy Acker seems a good place to start with that. What’s happening with your (really thrilling) dissertation on Acker? How long has she figured into your thinking?
DAM: I was just talking about Kathy last night.
I never met her, but I like to use her first name I am finding more these days.
I talk about her a lot still.
I know that work like nobody else's. I will say that if not for Acker's work when I found it I would not have made it through the time of my first book.
I got deep back into the critical work this summer, while waiting and hoping for something to happen during the slow publishing months around this most recent novel I took forever to write, nearly seven years for not even two hundred pages. I had been sitting on the critical work because thinking if I ever got in a tenure-track position, was I ever going to write a book like the dissertation again? But get it out there, I am starting to and still thinking, have it be readable, forget the footnotes and all I tried to do within them to buck whatever system I was in.
I think I'm trying to get it published, figure out how to do that.
I am just a Visiting Writer everywhere, for years, so...
I have a few people reading the manuscript, but I don't want to get into whatever pissing war for territory or ownership of the legend of the corpus.
Chris Kraus read it. Then she just wrote this big piece for The Believer. I think whatever I do with it now could start with that exchange. She said she wanted to read it, because she was writing about people writing about Acker. Then wrote back after reading it and said she wasn't. I wrote some things back in 2007, and they are now part of the points hit in Kraus's very smart trouncing.
TCF: I’m wondering about writers like Acker who have a whole other body of work developing around them, and how writers who write about writers can do that in a way that avoids the wrangling over territory that you mention. Emily Dickinson, for instance, gets all kinds of engagements. It’s interesting with Acker because of her own modes, the “intertextual desire and influence,” to steal the subtitle of your manuscript.
DAM: Yeah, it's like how could you ever say, "Someone took my idea!" You develop it in your own way. I worked on Acker along angles I tried to make clear were selective and narcissistic to me: I wanted to see more myself by seeing how she saw herself in gay men. I also wanted to understand more this voice that influenced me so much, even given our different tenors, that showed me how to be a poet in the novel, and how the novel could be an essay, even, it and poetry could be more than just one thing or just one conversation.
TCF: You read the Guibert journals that just recently came out, I believe (something on your Tumblr indicates as much). Do you keep a diary still?
DAM: My tumblr is so pathetically anemic and unfollowed. I keep thinking just think of it as a diary in pictures. If I have one these days, it lies somewhere between texts to my boyfriend/human companion (I have a dog and cat too we share, and a house, so he's also my life partner), other social media things, and then I just start these aesthetic abstractions, out of some occurrence or pondering of some day or another, things that might become story grounding or a lyric line in some poem that might fly.
When you are in a journal, to write it, don't you already think of your life in a way as a story you are in?
Right now I'm writing poetry because I'm teaching poetry. So that's what I'm going to bed with and waking up around.
My journal practice has become very queer, you might say.
TCF: Are you writing poetry in your journal, then? Does work find its way from the journal elsewhere regularly?
DAM: I guess I'm writing poetry in my journal if my phone's notes app is my diary. I think it is. A couple of years ago I realized I could take out my phone like everyone else had theirs and just secretly do whatever. I mean actually not get the kind of look I might if I were to take out a notebook, uncap a pen...like I was rude. I lot of times when I pretend to be texting now I'm writing.
Reading scholar Laure Adler on how Duras did her diary later in her career, on loose pages that variously got shuffled, this shifted a lot for me. I don't feel so trapped in time when I let whatever take the cast it might have one day but don't attempt to follow it so forward. I would find in my marble composition books myself actually trying to live towards arcs. But, now I have circled around and we can say it’s very queer of me, how I identify with these practices of these women, if we see Duras first and foremost as woman. She is just God to me.
TCF: If you were going to chart some sort of queer essay tradition, who would you put in there? I mean this personally, like who has contributed to your own thinking, more than generally.
DAM: Geoff Dyer and Duras, again (her book Writing, her book Green Eyes), Wayne's Cleavage, Leiris. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Peter Handke (The Jukebox and other essays)
. The public journals of
Ernaux (translated into English as Exteriors and Things Seen.)
Severo Sarduy. I find myself leaning towards Clayton Eshleman, as well. In
my some seven years of teaching classes at Wesleyan with all our visitors
dinner with him was a clear standout and moment of real edification. These are
people I didn’t already know. Lucy Corin, too, as a discovery.
Guibert was so monumental to me in everything that I even read his journals first in the Gallimard publication, French I mean, with me haunting the NYU library looking for anything, something, some new English translation to appear, so hoping for it. But then I just took on all those “foreign” pages, despite my faltering, halting command and grasp. I remembered what it was like to read Wuthering Heights at eight or whatever and to know I was getting maybe like about half of it absorbed, and I extended that to myself again with this other language, like theory, let the ghost come there where it would, let those filings telegraph or transmit to me however. Much of it just washed by, sure, but that’s fine. It was still a meditation. It was still a time of companionship.
When Nathanaël was doing the translation for Nightboat, I was only too happy to read them again in her hand and offer queries or reservations, any things not sitting right with me. I think my big contribution was towards the underrepresented slang at first, and the blend he did of an archaic and mannered vocab along with just slick sex street words, too. I spent good months of last summer doing this, out of love. All of this is for free, I mean. And then I got to the launch party in the gallery, asked to read, ended up changing in my recitation the word kept "glacé" to "Popsicle.”
TCF: I’m surprised Guibert doesn’t get read more but then I went to the gay beach in New York and a guy, a poet who I think is cute, was reading the journals, so maybe I’m wrong. In a conversation with Michael Klein you say that you “want to believe that poet equals queer” and also that you’re “more a hunter-gatherer” in terms of how you write. Being a hunter-gatherer seems very essayistic to me, especially in the way you bring together other voices, artists, etc. in your work. Can essayist equal queer in this way, or with these moves?
DAM: Definitely, if there is supposedly one thing that goes in one thing one way. I always try to screw—play, mess—around with that all. The more "people," "ideas," I can bring together in one language bed and get to recognize each other as mutual, the more I feel I am doing my kind of work.
TCF: Who are the other writers/artists that you find yourself working around these days? “To find each other as mutual.”
DAM: About 90% of what I read these days is student writing. That’s not an exaggeration. And not always a bad thing, when I can feel how there is someone alive in it, trying to pour everything into it, believing there is this and only this patient mining for where still nothing might come but an exchange of love. But for my own work, if I’m not going to be given the breaks the career academic gets, I also have to get out somehow, and as the old adage goes, somehow write myself out of the place.