Monday, May 30, 2016

Will Slattery: Some Opacities on Teaching Koestenbaum

Not too long ago I completed an MFA in the writing of Creative Nonfiction, which is a very fancy, perhaps aspirational way of saying that I have spent much of the past few years dealing with The Workshop—the galvanizing subject of so many hand-wringing think-pieces, that peculiar institution constantly heralded as either the ultimate salvation or the utter perdition of American Letters. But taking up the mantle of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction (see how silly it sounds when you break the acronym down?) entails not just surviving The Workshop but also (usually) leading or orchestrating or managing or coercing or mangling or herding undergraduate cats through The Workshop. It’s not a thing we, as a literary community, discuss very often, but a huge number of undergraduate introductory-level nonfiction creative writing courses are taught year after year by MFA students. Through some fluke, or perhaps a structural administrative failure, I was allowed to spend 4 academic terms of my MFA life leading students through the critique process while also throwing a series of model essays at them.

Of all the published work I forced on University of Arizona undergrads, the best (or at least the best for teaching) was, I think, the title essay from Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays. It’s a hyper-literate account of Koestenbaum’s personal and artistic development in the era of Reagan, Thatcher, and cocaine. It moves in short, elliptical little chunks like these:

A stranger smooched me during a “Read My Lips” kiss-in near the Jefferson Market Public Library: festive politics. 1985? I stumbled on the ceremony. Traffic stopped.


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A cute short blond guy named Mason used to brag about sex parties; I was jealous. I didn’t go to sex parties. He ended up dying of AIDS. I’m not pushing a cause-and-effect argument.


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In 1985 I read Mario Mieli’s Homosexuality and Liberation. I bought, but did not read, an Italian periodical, hefty and intellectually substantial, called Sodoma: Rivista Omosessualle di Cultura. That year I turned to George Bataille for bulletins on the solar anus, for lessons on smart principled obscenity.

It’s a great essay for cracking open assumptions about mimetic and diegetic time in essays. Beginner students are often afraid to experiment with time as an artistic tool. Koestenbaum’s essay, which slinks back and forth through different points all over the 80s, makes for a great teaching tool, a way of giving permission to move associatively rather than chronologically.

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Koestenbaum’s portrayal of time is, officially speaking, my reason for teaching this essay, but if I am honest I have a perverse, secretive, sub-official reason as well. The essay’s center is the HIV/AIDS crisis, and it encircles this subject by tracing out the sexual motion of a half-dozen recollected gay bodies. I believe, as firmly as I have ever believed anything, that there is a value in teaching essays that navigate the ethics of swallowing cum.


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Of late I also find myself enamored with Koestenbaum’s opacity. I don’t exactly mean difficulty when I say opacity, though the essay has that in spades too: he tosses out a litany’s worth of queer theorists, refuses to translate his Rimbaud epigraph, and assumes that his readers know the genre distinctions associated with the term écriture.

When I say that I am enamored with Koestenbaum’s opacity I mean that I love his deliberate refusal to resolve neatly. Consider the essay’s ending:

When I look back at the eighties I see myself as a small boat. It is not an important, attractive, or likeable boat, but it has a prow, a sail, and a modest personality. It has no consciousness of the water it moves through. Some days it resembles Rimbaud’s inebriated vessel. Other, clearer days, it is sober and undemonstrative. There are few images or adjectives we could affix to the boat; there are virtually no ways to classify it. Its only business is staying afloat. Thus the boat is amoral. It has been manufactured in a certain style. Any style contains a history. The boat is not conscious of the history shaping its movements. The boat, passive, undramatic, at best pleasant, at worst slapdash, persistently attends to the work of flotation, which takes precedence over responsible navigation. As far as the boat is concerned, it is the only vessel on the body of water. How many times must I repeat the word boat to convince you that in the eighties I was a small boat with a minor mission and a fear of sinking? The boat did not sink.

The essay previously established a huge swathe of intimate, nearly claustrophobic details, e.g., almost everything Koestenbaum read in the 80s, a good chunk of his sexual partners, the minutiae of his wardrobe, and the most memorable meals he cooked. And underneath it all was a palpable, fearful tension. The biographical experience of the HIV crisis is hung thick with trauma. To put it bluntly: this was a time when the author and nearly everyone around him was either afraid of dying, in the process of dying, or dead.

But Koestenbaum refrains from tying that tension up directly or cleanly for the reader, instead reworking the Rimbaud bit he opened with into a metaphor on boats that he deliberately extends until it cracks open, exposing a bevy of chewy interpretative possibilities for the reader to navigate (one might start by considering The Amorality of Particular Boats (a phrase which almost sounds like a Moby-Dick chapter that didn’t quite make it into Melville’s final draft—you know, one of those difficult, boring sections full of obscure facts about whales and knots and stuff)).

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Almost every time I teach Koestenbaum to a class, a student will privately approach me a week or two later to ask if I’m queer. Usually this is because they identify as queer, and want help in writing queer things. I never quite know how to respond. My politics are queer. My theories are queer. My life (and by some Montaignean principle of textual consubstantiality, my work) isn’t quite queer, but it is really, really, really gay. But I’m always terrified that any advice I give them will shrink the possible boundaries of their work. I don’t want my experiences to over-determine the shape of their art.

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Disappointingly (at least to my subversive side), I have never had a student be outraged by all the gay sex in this essay. My students generally either love the essay (for its ellipticism and its humor) or hate it (on account of its pretensions, a criticism Koestenbaum would almost certainly find fair), but none have ever expressed moral condemnation.

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A lot of writing about trauma (including, often, my own) seems to ape the story of Christ and Doubting Thomas. Come, Thomas, take your hand, feel the holes in my palms and the wound in my side, and then believe. Come, Dear Reader, feel the holes in my palms and then understand. Come, Dear Reader, touch the wound in my side and be absolved. Come, Dear Reader, see where the scourge tore open my back and have your catharsis. Come, Dear Reader, enter my flesh and then we will be as one.

But Dear Reader, what if those aren't the roles for us?

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To rebuff expectations, to avoid the easy slots and the clean fits, to cultivate a veiled intimacy, to require some squinting, to hope that a denial could be a gift, that a refusal could open new doors of thought—those are the moves of the opaque essay. I feel about the queer essay the same way the Supreme Court feels about obscenity: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. And the opaque essay is a queer essay, through and through.

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Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

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