Monday, January 12, 2015

Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Lily Hoang on Accessibility and the Price of Understanding/Understandability

This last month, Nightboat Books put out a very cool anthology called The Force of What's Possible, edited by Lily Hoang and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, featuring essays written in response to the following prompt:

In a recent article in The Boston Review, Marjorie Perloff argues that “by definition, an ‘avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.”1
For Alain Badiou, in his final thesis on contemporary art, “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.” 
With these two claims in mind, I am writing to ask you to contribute a short piece on what you believe to be elemental about your work as a writer: 
What does Perloff’s ‘avant-garde mandate’ mean for your own work? 
Should a writer be accessible in their writing and what does this mean to you? 
In light of Badiou’s claim, what is imperative to you about a poem/prose in terms of the political, the social, the unconscious? 
How do you navigate the tensions between audience, your compositional practices, and your imagination? 
In short, what compels you to write what you write and why?
Though it probably skews more toward poetry than anything else, it features quite a few writers who have contributed posts in the past to Essay Daily, or who have been subjects of essays posted here, including, just to name a few: Brian Blanchfield, Jenny Boully, Blake Butler, Brent Hendricks, BJ Hollars, Sean Lovelace, Ander Monson, Wendy Rawlings, Aurelie Sheehan, and David Shields. We think this collection is of interest to our readers, so invited Josh and Lily to have a conversation about some of the subjects that pop up therein on the record, which we present below.


Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Among the sentiments standing out to me now from our new anthology, Lily, are these from Jaswinder Bolina’s essay: “As to the question of accessibility in the poem, of course I want to be understood. I’ll give a malted milk ball to anybody that can pin the tail on the poet who doesn’t.” Perhaps the question becomes: what’s the price of “understanding” and what toll does that take on the artist, the practitioner, the writer? And who gets to set the bar for what understanding means?

Lily Hoang: In a workshop recently, I had a student who submitted a smart but completely inaccessible story. His classmates didn’t “get it” or “it”—by “it” I mean the plot, by “get it” I mean the story’s intention—although some of them did come close. Pointedly, I asked him if it was a problem to him that none of this classmates understood his story, and pointedly, he said no.
Keeping in mind: you will never have such a careful reader as in workshop. In workshop, your classmates ought to give your story at least two reads. Even though Nabokov says there is only re-reading, how often do our works get two reads?
But this is entirely irrelevant to your questions.
And so I introduce another anecdote about workshop: When I was in MFA school, my classmates didn’t “get” my stories. I would leave class dejected and depressed and devastated, but soon, I learned that I wouldn’t be demolished if I wrote stories they liked—by “like” I mean understandable, by “like” I mean readable, by “like” I mean easy. So I started submitting non-fiction essays about my non-white experience, and they loved them and so the strong writer can endure the toll of not being understood. I could not, so I bent—and it always felt cheap.
Without answering even one of your questions, I return your questions to you: what’s the price of “understanding” and what toll does that take on the artist, the practitioner, the writer? And who gets to set the bar for understanding?

JMW: I mean, I agree with Bolina. I want my poems to be gotten, but I don’t want to alter them into some sense of what I think the audience might like or, worse, prefer. When I think of poems by Dickinson or Celan, I remember that I love them precisely because they didn’t seem concerned with this—yet their stanzas are so utterly precise, compacted, highly pressurized little machines of meaning. The stakes are, most likely, never having much of an audience beyond the sphere of less accessible art forms, of course.
I like this thing that Ben Lerner said on the radio a year or two ago (and the transcription and any errors therein belong to me):
If you read poems and somebody says, you know, aren’t you worried about having more readers, aren’t you worried that the density of allusion or whatever won’t be accessible? I sometimes feel like asking the question, well, what does the culture need? Does the culture need more sound bytes? Does it need more easily consumable texts? Or should there be more art objects that challenge us to have a more robust and complicated notion of access…
I realized, in listening to this, that I don’t really think in terms of what the culture needs. I mean, I think Lerner is right that adding “more easily consumable texts” into the great maw of global consumer practices isn’t really offering much of an alternative. But I do think about what the role of making art entails. And to remain open to unknowns, to the inassimilable, to uncertainty, and the obdurate unrecognizability of what sort of experience a strange piece of art might present us with. Perhaps it’s that once art that’s difficult becomes bound up with the pleasure of reading, of the pleasing aspects of the encounter with a poem or text, then frustration doesn’t mark a failure but an opening. Frustration itself is just another experience to find pleasure—and creative, curious stress—in. Maybe it’s because I’m always reading Adam Phillips, and he likes to ask why we haven’t figured out how to enjoy our frustrations better. Why is frustration so frustrating, which maybe isn’t the stupid tautology it first resembles?
Have I sufficiently avoided all your questions? What’s your writing process like? Any big changes in how you think about the practice of making a piece of writing and your thoughts about your expectations for what happens to it after its off your desk and into the big wide world?

LH: Our writing, of course, changes, right? The question of accessibility was not even a blip of a concern of mine when I was younger. My audience was my workshop. I didn’t need to think about the reader and I definitely didn’t think any of my writing would ever be published. Furthermore, because I attended a conservative MFA program, my workshop didn’t like me and I’m not sure I liked them either. They were the furthest thing I could imagine from my ideal reader, so I wrote brazenly. I wrote angrily. I made more stories as inaccessible as I could, in many ways so that I could feel like I had some control over my rejection. And then—of course—when I couldn’t take the intensity of that rejection any more, I wrote things that I thought would appease them. But I’m not in an MFA program anymore, and I was lucky enough to have both manuscripts I generated during grad school get published. I think there’s a real difference between writing and writing with the knowledge that it will—eventually—be a published book object. The question of accessibility doesn’t inform my process now, per se, but the objective of reader/audience appreciation or enjoyment—not that those terms are synonymous or interchangeable in any way—is. Audience, however, is a flexible term, one that I’m not even comfortable defining.
A few years ago, I went to a craft talk on audience that Junot Diaz gave. He broke the broad category of audience into three groups—although I wouldn’t swear to this as fact because I have a terrible memory!—the audience within the text (e.g. the jury in Nabokov’s Lolita), the reader, and the people he actually writes the text for (people who move beyond the ideal reader). It’s this third category that fascinates me most. According to Diaz, every book and story he writes is for four guys from his high school. His works contain a million inside jokes that only they would get, but, but, you don’t need to “get” the joke in order to appreciate the text. This is something that has stuck with me for a long time, and I think it’s something I’ve always employed without being able to articulate it. I’m not as lucky as Diaz. I don’t have four high school friends to be my dream readers, but the idea is the same. I write things that I understand—maybe a few friends here and there will be able to point to a passage or two and know that they “get” it—but at the same time, I want the reader to be able to appreciate the thing as a whole, even if they don’t get every specific reference.
Or, another way of saying this is that I cannot write for the reader or audience. I can only write what I can—from my limited knowledge and experience and vocabulary. I storytell the only I know how to. My goal is not to alienate the reader, but then again, my personal experience is so alien from anyone else’s experience that all I can hope for is empathy and maybe just a little appreciation.

It used to be that when I read a really difficult text, one that I could barely enter, much less understand, that I would consider it “genius.” I was young then. Now, I’d say that the writer didn’t teach me how to read her text. I would say the text is flawed. This does not make it good or bad or anything else on the qualitative spectrum. It just makes it inaccessible to me.

But what is audience?
Jackie Wang and I used to joke about how we don’t understand sarcasm, and I think I don’t understand sarcasm because it relies on a shared knowledge, and more often than not, my personal experience blocks me from accessing that knowledge. I remain external to the whole’s internal. Everyone is laughing and I find myself laughing along too, not because I get the joke but because exclusion is lonely. I laugh because I feel utterly alienated. I am not a part of the audience.
So I repeat: what is audience?

But as to your question about process, which I think I answered in an inadvertent way earlier, I’d say the main thing that’s changed is that I write now with the knowledge that someone will probably read it. I don’t think that changes anything about my process though, it’s more just an acknowledgement.
Something that has changed over the years, however, is that I’ve developed a concern for narrative. Whereas I still don’t care about plot—and I’m not sure I’ll ever develop a taste for that “critical” component of “fiction,” I care a lot about storytelling. I care about tension. I care about empathy.
What are your primary concerns in your own work? What role does accessibility play?

JMW: I read my own work aloud as I’m revising and drafting, sculpting, re-wording, and—more often than not—cutting and rearranging. That talking voice, whose is it? It’s not quite the text’s and it doesn’t exactly belong to the author either. It’s a performance and a ventriloquism of sorts, but I think it has something to do with embodying the language, on the one hand, and overhearing the text as an other might hear it. Both of these fall short of their marks, since they’re both impossible in a sense. But they overlap somewhere as they fail, and that’s where the audience—most often a listener, actually—comes in for me. But because it’s an imagined listener, I’m still projecting that onto the cave walls myself. Very much alone, trying to get the text to Frankenstein around for a little while.
And I’m often very surprised—dismayed, stupefied, fascinated even—at how people (real live audience members!) understand the poems. It often has little to do with what I had thought I was doing, you know?
Here’s an example: I have this long piece called Meadow Slasher. I remember my friend and mentor Jane Miller, when she attended a reading of it some years back, just laughed and laughed at these really sneering, ugly, self-implicating parts of the poem. And I was thinking, she got it! It amused me to no end. The other fifty or sixty people in the audience were doing the totally austere poetry audience bit: solemn nods, blank stares, the whole nine.
But only a month or two earlier, I’d read that same excerpt in a bar in Boise, Idaho. There was a woman in the front row, and she started crying when these back-and-forth voices chime in—the same ones that Jane was totally tickled by, this woman—a perfect stranger—just loses it, and she’s weeping openly in the front row. And was apparently reduced to tears that the poem talks in such a base and aggressive way.
I remember my friend Martin Corless-Smith, who was hosting the event, came up to me afterwards and said only, “Well, Joshua, that was a very…American experience.” It broke the tension beautifully. And I don’t think he meant it as a compliment either, you know. But I laughed; I loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been called “American” before. So, reading from that work continues to assure me just how little I know about “audience”—what an audience might “get” or understand, let alone what they might be moved to giggling or tears by.
Like Jaswinder Bolina, and many others, I want to be “gettable,” I just don’t want that to put a damper on whatever approaches, ideas, methods, or techniques I might wish to employ in the work—be that a formal or content-based constraint, or be that a certain uncertainty I take to all my work. I don’t want to know what I’m doing in advance of the process. I want the work—the writing, the talking through, the revision, the mesmerism of those acts of making and re-making poetic language—to show me what I can feel and think, what’s fathomable and knowable.
Here’s a line from Theodor Hacker I discovered the other day, “Tyrants always want language and literature that is easily understood.” In this way, the political work of imaginative writing—that doesn’t take for granted the situation in which it’s written, but acknowledges certain factors, certain privileges—seems vital to me.
Over Christmas break, I’ve been reading all these books on how the internet is ruining our brains and whatnot, and it is pretty scary. One statistic that stands out is from a study that this professor at University of Chicago conducted only to discover that, to make a long story short, even though the internet made so many different sources available and “accessible,” scholarship in all these fields has actually narrowed in terms of citing fewer sources, less various sources, and of course, developing an over-reliance on many of the same oft-cited papers and studies.
It’s a bizarre idea to think that as we get more and more information available to our fingertips, we’re reading less and less, for briefer periods (mostly skinning, mostly scanning, mostly distracted by the sonorous pings, the happy whistles and links), and citing less variously as a result. In some ways, we have to narrow down, of course, because we can’t simply cite every source in the field of study; but I think this pertains to writers, you know? The act of imagination—and the weird work of making art—I still believe run counter to this. Or that they can. And perhaps that’s what The Force of What’s Possible is about in some ways—thinking through the politics of the imagination in that sense. It seems more prescient than ever.
And these questions still persist. Day before yesterday, in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra and Benjamin Moser both answered the following question in the Sunday Book Review: “Ezra Pound told his fellow writers to ‘Make it new.’ Is there any radical experimentation left to do in literary form?” The premise of the question is hilarious, as if we could possibly exhaust new approaches to creative uses of language—but I get that it’s meant as a provocation. Here’s Moser:
The time that ineluctably changes the body changes art as well, and –because we are all trapped in time and history—innovation is inevitable. To hasten these changes with gimmicks is to bring to literature an approach best reserved for consumer electronics.
I think I understand what he means, but it’s not as if written language and our alphabet isn’t one of the first—and best!—gimmicks we came up with. I love the schlockiness and the lowbrowness of the term “gimmick” in Moser’s dismissive sense, like it’s a stupid pet trick on Letterman or something. Perhaps he just means we should eschew the novel composed entirely on Twitter! or that type of flavor-of-month / one-hit-wonder  / pet-rock fad type-thing.
But to take innovation for granted, I don’t know. I don’t buy it. I think the walls are coming in faster than ever—especially because of the technologies that he rightfully disses—and that it’s up to us to activate new forms and methods, and not merely assume that “innovation is inevitable,” comforting as that might be to hear! I mean, all the studies of people reading online are pretty grim: minimal comprehension, maximum distractedness. It’s so perfect that the moment we make this tool high speed we consign ourselves to something as historyless as Twitter or as ridiculous as cat videos or flashy mashups. Anyways, now more than ever it seems like the time to make new kinds of texts that aren’t easily digested in sound bites and flashy listicles.
And Pankaj Mishra, in his response to the same question, takes it a step further (though their responses are very similar ultimately in that they both end on tradition as the holy grail) when he says, “Literary modernism has culminated in a canon of a few great texts; the experimental novel is more analyzed than read.” That latter part seems like an especially easy cheap shot to me. As I turn a couple pages back to the best-sellers this week? Yes, that would be John Grisham’s Gray Mountain and Killing Patton by Bill O’Reilly topping the respective lists in Hardcover (Hardcover! Beautiful book buyers of America!) in fiction and nonfiction. I mean, if that’s the case, I’m totally content over here with my old paperbacks of Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and other arcane highbrow writers pushing at what the novel might be shaped to become.

LH: I think your response is really compelling because in many ways, I’ve conflated accessibility with interpretation and/or understanding. Our anthology focuses on the writer’s intentionality of the elasticity of how accessible they would like their text to be, but once it reaches the brains of the readers, who knows!?! Every reader brings her own strengths and biases etc to the text. And these things are completely out of our control. We may write the most accessible text within our abilities—which seems like a totally weird goal—can you imagine what Badiou would say!?—and it could still be misread. I was on this kick a few years back when I determined myself to write traditional domestic realism: no experimentation, no fireworks, just plain old prose. One of those stories was published in Brooklyn Rail and to my complete horror, someone accused it (and me, obviously) of being anti-Semitic! Ok, fine, so there were Jewish characters and when they are introduced, the narrator judges them based on stereotype, but the end of the story shows exactly how incorrect those initial judgments are. That is, they are redeemed. So: misinterpretation in the most accessible thing I’ve ever written!

But to the issue of innovation: I’ve become drastically less innovative as I’ve grown older. Except: I’m not even sure I know what “innovation” means any more. So maybe you can help me out: what does “innovation” even mean?

JMW: I’ll evade that with two jewels from nearly six hundred pages into the second volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, which everybody’s on the bandwagon of lately and, yes, me included:
If there was one thing he hated it was modernism because it was non-communicative, inaccessible, abstruse, and endlessly self-important, without ever bothering to elaborate. But what do you say to have any impact on a man who at one time admired the Spice Girls? To influence a man who at one time wrote an enthusiastic essay about the sitcom Friends
And a page earlier we get this, when Knausgaard’s narrator is questioning anything fictional and everything narrative-based:
What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.
Do either of these bits from Knausgaard resonate at all for you, Lily?

LH: Foucault says: No gaze is stable, or rather in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity.
I love pop culture. I love Modernism. Give me my Rihanna and then pump me full of Stein. I guess accessibility is as easy as breathing: its consumption is effortless; the other stuff requires more chewing, more intention—and although it may be more fulfilling, it’s no less necessary to life than air.


Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of The Courier's Archive & Hymnal (Sidebrow Books 2014) and Meadow Slasher (Black Ocean 2016). He lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona and runs a small press called Letter Machine Editions and a poetry journal called The Volta.

Lily Hoang is the author of four books: Unfinished, The Evolutionary Revolution, Changing (recipient of a PEN Beyond Margins Award), and Parabola (winner of the 2006 Chiasmus Press “Un-Doing the Novel” Contest). With Blake Butler, she edited the anthology 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Young Writers. Hoang serves as co-director of Puerto del Sol, Editor at Tarpaulin Sky, and Associate Editor at Starcherone Books. She teaches at New Mexico State University.

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