Monday, March 28, 2016

“Queer It If You Can”: An Interview with Brian Blanchfield by Jill Talbot

I discovered Brian Blanchfield in January when Ander Monson tweeted a link to his essay, “On Dossiers,” featured in BOMB Magazine. The essay begins with a quote from Roland Barthes, followed by Blanchfield’s musings on the definition and purposes of dossiers, specifically in relationship to his experience on the academic job market. Within those musings, a floodlight appeared before me: “a horrid site called Academic Wiki Creative Writing 2015.” Here was a fellow writer and applicant who had come out of the Wiki shadows to share a particular experience with one university’s search, to declare his grievances with the bewilderment of the process and its conclusions. Blanchfield offers, “I am merely opening a dossier here, on disappointment with academia.”

The biographical information following the essay explains that “On Dossiers” is from a collection titled Proxies, so I ordered a copy, but not before I Googled “Brian Blanchfield” to find out more about the guy who struggles to land a T-T gig. Two poetry books, one of which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was also longlisted for the National Book Award. A contributor to Harper’s, The Nation, The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and Conjunctions. What the fuck, academia?

Is it my hair? Is it my unnaturally thin wrists? Is it my somehow sorrowful face in profile, its misguided, expectant smile? Is my voicemail gay? Gay enough? Is my posture unemployable?

I appreciated Blanchfield’s attempts at explaining his failure for the very reason Phillip Lopate says we read essays, “to feel less freakish and alone.” If you, like Blanchfield, like me, have come up short year after year on the job search for a permanent position, you have your own questions you muddle over (and over). It’s a very different set of questions from “What do I know?”.

I e-mailed Blanchfield to thank him for his essay, to commiserate about the difficulty and drudgery of the annual search. We went back and forth a bit, then plummeted into silence as we each performed our annual Skype, campus visit, long wait dance

After reading a few essays in Proxies, I reached out to Blanchfield again, and this time, not as one of those individuals he refers to in “On Dossiers” as “confrères on the outs. A family, we, of unaffiliateds,” but as a reader and scholar and writer of the essay. I wanted to interview him, to have the chance to bring as much attention to his essays as possible. They’re that good.

In “A Note,” the brief preface to Proxies, Blanchfield explains:

I decided on a suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources. I wrote these essays with the internet off. I determined not to review again the books and other works I consulted in memory, and I did not stop thinking through the subject at hand to verify assertions or ground speculation or firm up approximations. Que sais-je? Montaigne asked his library shelves one day late in the sixteenth century, and increasingly that seems a good start.

Montaigne. Bingo. Blanchfield invokes the tradition of a mind “thinking through” a subject, as he does in essays titled, “On Owls, “On Propositionizing,” “On Man Roulette,” “On Tumbleweed,” “On House Sitting,” “On Frottage,” “On the Near Term,” and seventeen more “On”s. As I began the brief essays that usher the reader into the collection, I discovered the wildness and playfulness of what I refer to as the “pure essay,” the essay that meanders and arrives not in conclusions, but in continuations, the essay that doubles back on itself, that draws on the secondarity of the subject at hand (the self) vis-a-vis intertextuality.

However, rather than quoting Virgil with authority as Montaigne did, Blanchfield “[suppresses] . . . authoritative sources” by relying on memory. Que sais-je?, then, becomes not only what one knows, but what one remembers, and we misremember, we revise, unwittingly. To that end, Blanchfield’s explains:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Blanchfield’s contemporaries in this “thinking through” approach include essayists such as David Lazar, Mary Cappello, Elena Passarello, Wayne Koestenbaum, Patrick Madden, Steven Church, Lia Purpura (I could go on), and, as Blanchfield mentions in this interview, the layering of life writing and intellection as practiced (and perfected) by Alison Bechdel and Maggie Nelson.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing offers a seismic addition to the Essay World.

In “On the Understory,” you write about making maps when you were young. For readers unfamiliar with your essays, I’m hoping you’ll create a map of one of the essays in the book, a legend of your “thinking through” a subject.

What a great idea: a schematic for how these essays travel their territory. (I wish I had my childhood Etch a Sketch.) I think to map the course of an essay probably gets me also to trace to a couple of important forebears.

The twelfth of these twenty-four essays is “On House Sitting, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” By that point I think the reader may be accustomed to (and read right past) the formula of these essays’ chunky titles; accustomed, too, to the suppositional and speculative quality of the improvisatory, go-it-alone thinking—a result of the constraint you’ve laid out. If the reader is also accustomed to the brevity of these essays, it’s at this point in the book that expectations are flouted a bit. “House Sitting” is one of several essays that extend to seven, eight, ten pages, rather than two or three. After a while, these essays just outgrew their rooms

Housesitting is typical as a subject in this regard: I chose it with a loose sense that inside it there was hot material for me, personally uneasy territory and the invitation for vulnerability, and that I would find it. Atypically, I knew here, before I began, that I wanted to arrive at an assertion, an insight I had had once while interviewing Eileen Myles: “I think you could tell a rather comprehensive queer literary history through the lens of housesitting.” And then pursue what that might mean.

This essay begins with a quick review of an experience of housesitting a friend’s apartment in Provincetown—finding the keys under the back stairs, reading and developing selective (even erotic) relationships with his books and things, deducing from a note on the desk that Eileen had been there before me. And very early on, this essay, like nearly all of the essays, attempts a definition of the subject at hand. There’s a funny scientistic project to this book, I think—in part the pieces are structuralist studies of the phenomenon or object or meme, and it may be that each time the “study” surrenders to the intimacy I find within. Or maybe there is no victor in that toggling.

In any case, the structuring “rules” of housesitting are determined here, one by one. They’re familiar to anyone who has caretaken another’s space. I move through a few of these. Mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or an enabling fiction. Initially everything about housesitting is citational: here I am “drawing the blinds,” now I think I’ll “separate these twist ties,” etcetera. The housesitter’s identity shifts during his stay: minder, prowler, visitor, surrogate, beneficiary, help. Because the eventual goal is to leave things as they were, housesitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious. The construct is a tidy socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last formulation wanders into an area of concern revisited elsewhere in this book: the question of simulation of heterosexual models, versus the original expression of the categorically queer. I think because there’s tenderness under my assertion, I then turn back to personal anecdote, narrating several housesitting incidents, including when a friend’s husband returned home early to find I had substantially rearranged the place and was with a guy in their bed. I must say, I left out several other doozies. These amount to an inquiry into the specific sort of resentment that announces itself if one party or the other is insensitive to what it might mean to borrow the stance and posture of cultural privilege when an LGBT person housesits a straight household.

That’s the zoom-out opportunity I finally take to think about Hart Crane housesitting for the Gorham Munsons and James Schuyler housesitting for the Fairfield Porters, Eileen Myles housesitting for friends in Bucks County Pennsylvania, and Jack Spicer refusing to “play house” for writers he resenting for moving out to the suburbs. What I hadn’t expected is that this would open onto an even wider inquiry into what queer community is and can be, and who exactly I mean when the poems in my second book, A Several World, construct again and again a we, a first person plural, a collective that recognizes one another, conjoined perforce in solidarity. A few of these essays discover something well beyond what I thought was available, and this is one, which connected for me (and, sadly, anticipated) the deaths from HIV/AIDS of the friend with whom I was discovered in bed, and David Armstrong—a subject of the book I loved in Provincetown and later my boyfriend’s boss for whom we often housesat, and James Merrill.

So, maybe you can hear Roland Barthes’ science of signs in Mythologies and (behind that) Adorno’s Minima Moralia as formative influences, and the work of Chris Kraus and Wayne Koestenbaum who do not suppress the autobiographical and even the abject in the monograph form, and Alison Bechdel and Maggie Nelson and others for whom lifewriting is indistinct from a kind of free intellection.

Essayist Joe Bonomo has compared writing an essay to “building a house without knowing in advance how many rooms or floors you’ll put in. The house builds itself.” He has also written, “The mind is a large house with many rooms. The rooms are connected-by hallways, by frayed runners, by wall lamps, by desire, and by memories.”

While reading your essays, I appreciated the experience of wandering pages and paragraphs without knowing where I was going, discovering unknown rooms, following the hallways you used to connect them, and being delightfully surprised at the end of each essay, thinking, “I never thought we’d end up here,” or “I’ll be damned, he brought it back.”

I don’t want to ignore the connections you’re making between queerness and essaying, because it’s a connection/overlap/conversation I had planned to ask you about, so I assure you, I will come back to it.

But since you bring up your second book of poems, A Several World, I wanted to ask you a question regarding genre. In The New York Times review, you’re described as a poet who “can connect anything to anything else.” This mode of writing echoes what you’re detailing here.

How and why did you make the shift from poem to essay? And why now, do you think?

When I was living in Missoula, teaching at the University of Montana, 2008 to 2011, I had a recurring dream that was largely architectural. I’d be in a childhood home of mine or in an apartment I had rented and I would discover a door I hadn’t seen before, along the hallway or in a closet or in the building’s “utility room.” Opening it I’d find a passageway that led down some stairs or along a corridor to another door, and so forth, eventually opening onto something that felt like total largesse, a windfall: a huge natatorium from some other era, or a plush, cozy “reading room,” or something. The feeling of illicit trespass would give way to an understanding that I have access, that this too is part of my living quarters. I have the keys. They were exploratory, exhilarating dreams, and the message: this area has been here all along, unoccupied or undiscovered by me, and from now on it’s part of what I inhabit.

It was in these years that I wrote the very first of these essays, and came to understand slowly that there would be a book of them. I’ve fallen into the habit of saying that essay prose is “another room on the house” that I thought was all poetry. My subconscious was already working out that insight long before I said it aloud.

Stephen Burt made that remark about my first book of poems, Not Even Then, and I recognize in it a (sometimes wearied) assessment critics make about the Metaphysical poets: that they can and do connect anything to anything else. Rhetorical and committed to reasoning, but given to associative logic.

My second book likely absorbs the description less thirstily. But A Several World anticipated Proxies in a couple of ways that are apparent to me now. Not least in the suite of poems, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012, in which, one by one—Time, Authority, Casuistry, Education, Symmetry—“the history of an idea” becomes a kind of landscape for a sort of fictive, imaginative idyll. My own lifespan to that point provided the parameters, and while those poems are nobody’s working epistemology, I’m glad for the permissive premise I granted myself that if you have lived those years you are plenty expert enough on the recent trajectory of an idea and its value to tour someone through the area.

Attention to the thing as expertise enough, the sense of an infinitely repeatable experiment, and treatment of itemized individual subjects almost as though you were involved in a series of place studies: all are qualities of Proxies, too.

I’ll also say that when I really got into the writing of this book of essays, in my late thirties, I grew aware of a rather simple urge, which is made of a fervently nonacademic independence: I wanted to say what I knew. What I knew not only as a “queer intellectual” poet, but also as the son of a truck driver and a Primitive Baptist, as a perennial applicant alternately absorbed and expelled by academia, a professor without an office, a spiritual beginner, a furtive and class-conscious observer, and so on. With a fair amount of candor. That hadn’t been available to me in poetry. You could call it an early mid life crisis, I like the term reckoning: a wish to add it up, to integrate my knowledge bases, each one more than a little off base.

To write about propositionizing (the linguistics term) or the leave (in billiards) or the understory (in ecology) without access to any outside knowledge turned out, peculiarly, to be a way to do the psychologically integrative work of memoir. A back door entry.

I ran into two poets in a bar the other night (no, this is not the opening of a joke), and I suggested Proxies to them for the poetry craft and writing exercises you discuss. For example, in “On the Locus Amoenus,” you discuss the poet versus the speaker of the poem; in “On Containment,” you explore Charles Olson’s term “proprioception”; more than once you mention and/or quote the poetry of Hart Crane; and in “On Abstraction,” you describe an exercise you ask poetry students to do to avoid it.

You alluded to “On the Leave,” at the close of your last answer. That’s one of my favorite essays in the collection. In it, you begin by discussing pool (now I’m unfolding a map of your essays for readers) and “think through” the game in terms of the leave (“in billiards, is the arrangement of however many of fifteen numbered balls remain on the table”) and the given (what’s left for the next taker, “who must address the cue.”) From here (I’m flattening the creases of the map), you begin discussing your father, who supplemented his truck driving income by shooting pool. During the few custody weekends after your parents’ divorce, he’d take you to the bars where he played (I loved the description of the bar in daytime). Then, after the age of twelve, you rarely saw him: “Understanding this given as the leave, it took me years to know how to play my turn.” From here (now I’m pointing to a road’s direction), you describe a sexual encounter near a pool table in a bar, where you’re sure you had shared the story of your father, the pool shark:

It can be very attractive in one’s narrative to replace the given with the leave. Because if I equate my foundational circumstances with the leavings, the discard, the refuse—even the ruins—of others, I feel more entitled to use them, to build from the rubble.
I wonder if you see this ability to “remark,” as part of (your) essaying, as well.

I like the rough road of your summary, and I’m glad to know you like that essay in particular. If you’re playing your shot, you’re keeping in play what’s already in play: yes, I think that is a fair analogy to the work of essay nonfiction, for me. I mean, in this genre I find I need something particular to examine, to annotate, trusting the larger secondarity of another subject is accessible somewhere within. To be a bit reductive, that’s the model for writers as different as John McPhee and Guy Davenport and Claudia Rankine and Adam Phillips.

Shall I fit under my teacher hat here for a moment? The root of “poetry” comes from the verb to make (and the root of fiction is to form), but at the root of the word “essay” is the verb to weigh or to weigh out. That etymology seems to be have been determinative, at least as I work in these genres. For now I like the essay as an act of measure, to estimate the matter at hand. A bill of lading.

I was in my thirties before I realized that fraught was the past participle of freight. I guess I have been unpacking ever since.

The other way you may be meaning remark is also central to the pleasure of writing to me. I’m afraid I’m given to the occasional aphorism or apothegm—or anyway some kind of relatively bracing quick formulation—in prose and in poetry. I mean in this very essay, one of the shorter ones, there a few of them. It’s likely a kind of self-reprimand or counterbalancing impulse after a long deliberative passage or more intricate sentence-work.

As we talk here, you’re on the road (in real time, not on a map of an essay), so I should note that “remark” is a word you italicize toward the close of that essay; in particular, you claim that your life (the writing) is a reply, even a remark. I like thinking of my essaying, too, as a reply or a remark. Very much so.

When I was in college, I was a cheerleader both for the Baptist university I attended and for a professional organization I worked for during the summers, so most of the men I spent my time with in my formative late teens and early twenties were gay. At my university, the men were threatened with being removed from the squad or even expulsion if they came out, and one of them was kicked out of his apartment after his roommate found out and announced, “I want to be President some day, and I cannot have a homosexual roommate in my past.” (I’ve never heard that roommate’s name on MSNBC or seen it on an election ballot.) Many of the conversations I had with my friend and other men centered around their frustration at a world that did not allow them to be who they were, or, as it was the late 1980s, their fear and the reality of HIV/AIDS.

It took me a while to figure out why I’ve always been drawn to the writings of gay men (it took until my thirties). A few years ago, I taught a class focused on the works of Bernard Cooper and Truman Capote, yet expanded to include other writers, such as Peter Cameron, Marky Doty, Adam Haslett, Paul Lisicky, Ryan Van Meter, Felice Picano, Bob Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Edmund White, who were all were gracious enough to be interviewed via e-mail by individual students in the class. What I eventually figured out was that each time I read one of these writers, each time I suggest a writer to a student or an acquaintance, each time I teach a book or an essay, or that year I took my bank teller a copy of Ryan Van Meter’s debut essay collection as a gift when he married his husband—I’m trying to give a voice to those men I knew and loved and cared about (and, I fear, let down) then.

In that way, my penchant for reading and teaching (and interviewing) queer writers serves as a remark, a reply.

At the close of “On the Leave,” you describe that “you (the writer) find that to answer is also to resume and, in resuming, to reconcile with posterity. Queer it if you can.”

David Lazar in “Queering the Essay,” notes, “The essay doesn’t just resist classic gender binaries, but in many ways queers them. I’ll put the statement out of the rhetorical closet: the essay is a queer genre. What do I mean? I mean this in a most specific way. In the way that queer theory defines queer as a continuing instability in gender relations that undermines the traditional binary of gender, replacing it with indeterminate, transgressive desires. The desire of the essay is to transgress genre.”

Interesting analogy, and worth thinking about. I feel the urge to fuss with it a bit. Because it gets slippery, doesn’t it, when you assign intention to identity stuff?: positioning differently toward the gender binary isn’t always a desire to transgress or replace it; but, it can be an enactment (act as is if there is no center, per Stein) of the constructedness of gender. Genre, too, is of course a received structure; and there too it’s possible to back into intentional fallacy, in assuming the author is claiming a referential relationship to nonfiction or the essay or memoir or whatever.

It wasn’t long ago, fifteen years or so, when even in English certain writers resorted without better options to borrowing the French term for a kind of writing unconcerned with genre distinction: écriture. What are you writing? Just writing. Who was that, Barthes, and then Helene Cixous, écriture feminine? When’s the last time you heard her cited anywhere? But the tradition they were (barely) naming—Colette, Duras, Michel Leiris, Annie Ernaux, Hervé Guibert—was really influential on the prose writers I’ve learned most from: The New Narrative writers in California, the transgressive autobiographical novelists on both coasts, critical theorists working outside of discourse and objectivity, overlapping as they all did with gonzo journalism and conceptual art and documentary poetics and who knows what all. What terms have we settled on: lifewriting, autotheory, semioautobiography? I saw a nasty Kirkus review call it personalia, which I think we ought to endorse. I like essay. Essay suffices.

Is essaying queer? Yeah. And yet my single favorite passage from it, maybe my favorite passage of literature, remains the opening pages of Manhood, more or less a collection of cultural criticism pieces, by Michel Leiris, a cis straight white European man, in which the writer analyzes the specimen of himself, from the physiognomy of his “humiliatingly ugly” facial structure to his disgust for newborn babies to his habit of scratching his anus in unguarded moments. It’s a thrill, I think, because such thoroughness of self-scrutiny is rare.

If only your friend’s former roommate had then, or developed later, this sort of radical self-assessment and behavioral analysis. I hold out the possibility (I elect the possibility) he’s out there somewhere, the little governor, reflecting on the rationale and interworkings of his erstwhile moral cleanliness. On his self understood as specimen and type. (The utter opposite, it occurs to me, of self-blind Trumpism.)

Also. Giving your teller your favorite book: I like you.

All these terms you allude to work to identify, to place into a category, yet if something defies categorizaiton, how do we name it? When I was dropping my 8th grade daughter off at school one morning, I nodded to a student walking to the front door and asked, “Is that a boy or a girl?” She answered without hestitation, “What does it matter?” Indeed.

I, too, am comfortable with “essay,” though I’ll add one to your list up there: Barrie Jean Borich’s “Autogeographies” (from Bending Genre, which also includes four other writers—Kazim Ali, Lia Purpura, T. Clutch Fleischmann, and Karen Brennan—making connections between genre and gender). All of a sudden I’m thinking of of Jill Soloway’s “MaPa” in Transparent.

You turned us toward the self, so I’d like to close by returning to the beginning of your book, “A Note,” in which you claim, “This is a book braver than I am.” I appreciate the separation of the self as Brian Blanchfield and the persona of the essay/the essayist. I’d love to hear how you distinguish between those two entities: the individual and the essayist.

You name here someone who has been crucial to the development of this book, always one of my first readers, my closest writing partner in Tucson, and one of my early teachers, Karen Brennan. Karen’s essay “Memory, Story and the Recovery of Narrative,” which developed into her memoir Being with Rachel, is one of my touchstones for trenchant combination of the personal and the scholarly. (And her new, next book Monsters is brilliant, adventurous as ever at the boundaries of genre.) Thinking of her, in relation to your question, is pertinent, perfect, especially as she more than anyone knows the calculus that brought me to the title of my collection, relatively late in the process (I had the working title Onesheets for a long while). Proxies I like for sort of naming the form I’m working in, like a diminutive of approximation, a prosey estimation of a subject. But of course I also welcome its established meanings, and the more I learned what it is to write nonfiction and narrative, learning the ethics of writing this book, the more it seemed that the essays were proxies for me—to act where I could not or would not. Stand-ins, agents, avatars, sentries. I came to have the sense of sending them out ahead of me, ahead of what I was in the present ambient moment of each essay able to confront. Essay as deputy self. For a while I’ve been predicting that Proxies will at the very least accelerate certain of my relationships, professional and personal. Wherever they were going, they’ll get there faster now.

I can already say, ten or fifteen days into the life of the book, still in its prehistory really, that it organizes actual opportunities to rise up to the level of disinhibited honesty that I permitted myself writing them. I think I’m finding that now the necessary forward action is expressed as standing by them. (The standing in era is finished.)

The rolling endnote, Correction., I’ve described as an afterlife of facts, after the reckoning. I’m beginning to feel that living on after authoring such a book will likewise feel distinctly subsequent. To say nothing of consequences.


Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of poetry and prose, most recently Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, available now from Nightboat Books. For the essays in the book--which have appeared in Harper's, BOMB, Brick, StoryQuarterly and other publications--he was awarded a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction. The more recent of his two collections of poetry, A Several World (Nightboat), received the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was a longlist finalist for The National Book Award. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and hosts the radio show Speedway and Swan.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the essay collection Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She is the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Two of the essays in The Way We Weren't were named Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015, respectively. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, Passages North, The Pinch, and The Rumpus. She is currently the essays editor for BOAAT and the fiction editor for High Desert Journal.

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