Monday, January 16, 2023

Mordecai Martin, The Writer Goes To School: A Translation and Overidentification Between Translator and Translated in 54 Footnotes

Original Yiddish by Lamed Shapiro1 , Translation and notes by Mordecai Martin2



Toward the end of 1896, when I was almost still a child, I came to Warsaw3 with the explicit intention of conquering the city.

What were my qualifications for this aggressive move? Nothing; except, maybe, for the fact that I had started to write at all—and with such fervor—from the age of 8 years old.4

In my childhood and early adolescence, I was exceedingly pious. My ideal was the Tzaddik, “The Rebbe.” How did I pair this with my taste for writing? I don’t know. An uncle of mine, seeing my piety, was sufficiently farsighted to say, “When the boy grows up, he’ll be a heretic.”5 Around Bar Mitzvah age, I began to struggle with my God, and for a few years, a devastating waste grew in my heart. I was in despair and went so far as to author my own prayer, in the nusach of: Please, Lord, give me a sign! But God continued sitting on Mt. Sinai, veiled in His clouds, and I did not even merit seeing His back. This was my first heartbreak, and perhaps, considering my age, the hardest.6

At that time, I was already writing poems and stories in Hebrew. Later, in Russian, but the entire time, I was also writing in Yiddish, in a natural style, without a theoretical “stamp of rabbinic approval”7, for the simple reason that I did not think of Yiddish as a language.8 The “rabbinic approval” I received much later, in a crooked way, if you can believe it, from Pisarev.9 He changed my focus from “The Morningstars Sing in the Choir”* (Job 38:7) to the world around me, the surrounding reality. From there, my journey to Yiddish literature is clear; most likely the road was such, or similar, for many other Jewish writers of my generation.10

Arriving in Warsaw, in my hotel room I put on a morning coat—a garment that probably came about from the marriage of an overcoat and a dress coat- and a hat with a shiny visor, like the ones students from the Yiddish secular high schools wore.11 In this very garb, I called on Number One Tsegliane Street12, at the door where a brass plate read in Hebrew, “Y. L. Peretz receives at 4 PM”. Peretz himself opened the door. As large as Peretz’s eyes were, they grew even larger when he saw my attire.

I can only imagine those eyes, if he knew what was in front of him: a Genghis Khan.13

Peretz took me into his study and we chatted about Yiddish literature, which at that time, might as well have not existed. It was after Sholem-Aleichem’s “Folks-Bibliothek”14, after Spektor’s “Hoyz-fraynd”15. The first era of Peretz’s “Yiddishe Bibliothek” and his “Yontef-Blaatlech” were in the past. No books were being published. There weren’t even the three-kopek little folded books from Munk’s publishing house16 anymore. From this talk, the only thing that lingers in my memory was my question, “How can that be? It was so vibrant a few years ago!” And his clipped response, “Among the writers. Not among the readers.”17

They were twilight years, and for me, they were years of near-despair at the possibility of a literature in Yiddish. Mendele was in Odessa, managing the local Talmud-Torah; Sholem-Aleichem was in Kiev, Menachem-Mendling18, and in Warsaw, both were practically unknown, outside of those few writers. In Warsaw itself, there was Peretz and Spektor, but I doubt that the Warsaw public knew they were writers. Dovid Pinski19 was studying in Berlin—or so Avraham Kotik20 tells me. There was some young man or other “who had a spark within him”, Avrom Reyzen21, who was off somewhere, serving in the Tsar’s army; he was in the musician’s battalion, and probably had the intention of being “the third bar.”22 And—That’s it! That was the entirety of Yiddish literature.23 No journalism in Yiddish was allowed. The Hebrew paper in Warsaw, “HaTsefira”, took money to print articles by certain writers, and in Petersburg, “HaMelits”24 printed reports from the provinces about a burnt down bathhouse or about arguments over a ritual slaughterer or a rabbi.25

As an aside, a detail about Peretz around that time. We, a group of young people, had a plan of publishing a journal, and had wanted Peretz as our editor. We had a meeting with him, and when his turn came to speak, he begged our pardon: About “such matters” it was difficult for him to express himself in Yiddish, and since we “Litvaks”26 didn’t understand Polish, he would speak Russian!27

After two years in Warsaw, I returned to my home town, in Ukraine, for some personal concerns. I had not “conquered the city”; the citadel of Warsaw remained untouched.28 I traveled with the intention of returning soon—and ended up staying in my home for 5 years. Before this time, I was primarily interested in Russian literature, and the approaching first Revolution.29 Only at home I wrote Yiddish.

When I returned, in 1903, Warsaw was unrecognizable. The whole Jewish world was unrecognizable. In the borderlands between the two centuries, the two great Jewish political movements were born and grew to maturity: modern Zionism and the Bund.30 In Petersburg, Der Fraynd, the first Yiddish daily newspaper, exploded onto the scene. Those who remember that time and know the role that “Der Fraynd'' played in our political and cultural life will understand why I used the expression “explode”. In Warsaw itself, the weekly “Folks-tzeitung” was published, first under the direction of Dr. Joseph Lurie31, later under Spektor. Peretz became maybe the most brilliant orator in Yiddish that I had ever heard, a powerful fount of dazzling thoughts and colorful speech; Sholem-Aleichem was the most popular, most read writer, even in Poland. Bialik32, Berdyczewski33 and Judah Steinberg34 wrote both in Hebrew and in Yiddish, and even Shimen Frug35, recalled his youthful sins, and with an uncertain tread, approached the language “of Vilna’s market and Dvinsk’s butcher shops.”

One started to hear from America—Morris Rosenfeld36, Kobrin37, Libin38, Jacob Gordin39, Avrom Liessen40. From there, indeed, we were also saddled with translated cheap novels and “adaptations” from foreign literatures. These good people even so patched up Shakespeare that he came out as good as new.41 And in Warsaw! Warsaw Alone! Frischmann42, Dinezon43, Setzer44, Bal-Makhshoves45, Reizen, Nomberg46, Asch47, Weissenberg48, Z. Shneour49, Jacob Steinberg50, I. D. Berkowitz51 . . . Aha! Out with the dream of conquering worlds! You will be content, friend, to be capable of managing your own affairs.52 From far-flung hick towns, from small-town mud, the boys and girls came running to Warsaw,—What possessed them? What sort of force expelled them from the deepest recesses of the People and sent them on a mission? GO AND CREATE LITERATURE IN YIDDISH!53 And this at a time, when an individual who held any personal ambition was able to go to Russian, to Polish, to German. And they did indeed go! However, the ones who left for the other languages—with the exception of those who left for German—were our weakest. Bless their heads, let them live and be well.

Ah, truly, the song of Yiddish literature in the beginning of the 20th century has not yet been sung! The person who saw the new Yiddish literature as a trickling stream, now was standing on the banks of a river, which was destined to overflow all countries where Jews lived.54

1 Levi Yehoshua Shapiro, (1878-1948) born in Rzhyshchiv, Ukraine, died in Los Angeles, California. One of my favorite writers on violence and antisemitism, author of the tense psychological thriller short stories “The Cross” and “White Challah.” What is presented here is the autobiographical sketch that begins his long essay, “Der Shrayber Geyt In Heyder” “The Writer Goes To School,” published in 1945 in a slim collection of literary criticism. The rest of the essay is a meandering exploration of Shapiro’s opinions on writing craft and art. I discovered it by asking a facebook group of Yiddish writers and scholars for Yiddish Writing on Writing. I have been translating it since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I filled the holes in my Yiddish grammatical education and the long days of lockdown with an obsession with Yiddish Duolingo. I still have much to learn, but can translate with a dictionary and some patience.


2 I came to Yiddish for the ghosts. I have been convinced from a young age that I will one day encounter my great grandparents, dead decades before my birth. What will I say to them? What language to greet them in, to show I have spent my time honoring them and their memories? The problem with ghosts is that they’re people. The more I learn about my great grandparents, both specifically from family lore and in general conclusions about their generation, I wonder if they WOULD be proud if I spoke to them in Yiddish. Possibly more bemused than proud. Why did I waste time not being a nice American boy, like they had hoped for, like they had been so proud to see my father and his brothers becoming? Then again, my father and mother have so little insight into their own grandparents’ interiority. It was not a time for showing children what made your heart bleed. Bubbe sold sweaters in a little shopping cart around Brownsville. Zayde was a waiter in Crown Heights, though all he ever cooked was cucumber salad. Wispy little ghosts, remembered for wispy little gestures. Better, now that my Yiddish is coming along, to study literature.


3 Here the city makes an appearance as the center of the Yiddish literary world, a position it held in no small part due to its prominent Yiddish literary citizen, Yitzhok Leybush Peretz, (1852-1915), who was a tireless mentor to younger generations of Yiddish writers, including Lamed Shapiro. And so we see “that a man in himself is a city” Is the author seeking to conquer the city, the literary scene, or his mentor’s mind?


4 When I was eight I authored and illustrated my first book, whose title escapes me, but whose subject was a species of aliens that could mimic toilets, attacking a human population hopelessly enslaved to their bowel movements. The attack is fought off by a brave little Jewish authorial stand-in character, who saves the world on Hanukkah. Already my work’s preoccupation with explicit Jewish content, the body, and the alien are present. Some of these preoccupations are shared with Shapiro and other Yiddish writers.


5 The nature of Shapiro’s heresy is vague. Perhaps he denied the very existence of the God of Israel. Or perhaps having witnessed pogrom after pogrom and keenly observed their devastating psychological effects, he denied that there is a Judge and Justice. My own heretical leanings are even more difficult for me to understand. I no longer trust God, and I believe God must answer for all suffering, including my own. I would like to know why, if God demanded that I learn Torah and obey the Law, why God has made it so difficult for me to do so without resulting in a deep melancholy and anxiety that does not allow me to function at all, let alone as an observant Jew. I am perhaps more of a believer than Shapiro. It is unclear.


6 When leaving God behind, all that is left are Jews. When you stop speaking Hebrew, the language that “crossed over”, all that is left is Yiddish, the language that is Jew-ish.


7 The word in Yiddish is the Hebrew word “הכשר,” meaning both generally a Rabbi’s declaration that a food stuff or religious article is “kosher” and the symbols used by a variety of Rabbinic organizations to show that they have supervised and approved the production of a food stuff or article for use by observant Jews. Shapiro uses it colloquially here, but there was a time I sought rabbinic approval for my whole life, desperate to please a cadre of musty historical figures whose writings and decisions in the framework of Jewish law I considered sacrosanct. I still love and value the writings of these rabbis, I still long for their embrace. But my madness, my pain, prevents me from keeping the law. What can I do? The rabbis in their wisdom might declare me a “שוטה”, a man too mentally unfit to keep the law. That is the best case scenario. They might condemn me as a simple sinner, too obstinate and boorish to know how to be Jewish correctly.


8 This contempt for Yiddish as a “jargon” is deeply felt to this day. My ancestors had almost no interest in passing the language to my parents’ generation of Americans, who they would whisper over, holding their secret parental and grandparental conversations in the old language. My father often chuckles indulgently when I tell him what I learn in my Yiddish classes, cracks old borscht belt jokes, wonders what I am doing on my phone all the time. I am telling a cartoon owl how many eggs he has in Yiddish. I am telling a cartoon bear that he forgot to close the store. I am playing my heritage as a game.


9 Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev (1840-1868), a literary critic and one of the foremost thinkers of Russian Nihilism. An influence on Lenin, his effect on Shapiro is humbler: the adoption of the language of himself and his neighbors for literature.


10 This humility, this flippancy, this certainty that a detailed autobiography of his reading and writing life could shed no light that has not already been shed, where does it come from? Is there a vast literature of Yiddish writers on writing? Do we know this story already? Why don’t I know how to read as a Jew? What literature makes a Jewish writer? What makes me a Jewish writer?


11 Shapiro describes a bizarre outfit, half formal wear, half costume of youth and immaturity, in which he goes to meet Peretz. In my bar mitzvah suit, with its crazy patterned tie to satisfy my still childish tastes, I receive check after check, and every now and then a book. Was it here that I first held a copy of Peretz’ stories in translation in my hand?


12 So the great man enters our story. My own reading of Peretz started around the age that Shapiro met him in person. I gobbled up translations of his work, finding his slightly austere style more to my liking than the schmaltzy folkiness of Sholem-Aleichem (1859-1916) or Mendele Moykher Sforim (1835-1917) the other great pillars of Yiddish Literature. He was for a while, most of what I knew of Yiddish literature, besides the Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903-1991) children’s stories that I had grown up with, and the little Aleichem and Mendele I had read. I saw parallels between him and my adolescent favorite, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). They both mixed magic and philosophy freely. Peretz tells stories of miracles and mud with a detached wondrousness. I was enchanted by his words as a young adult. I haven’t read him for ten years. Life gets in the way. To encounter him here, as a human being, a hero to Shapiro but still fallible, is to rediscover and reinvent my image of him, no longer a wizard behind an untouchable great book, but a writer. A great writer, but still, a writer, as Shapiro is a writer, as I am a writer. What separates me from YL Peretz? A language, a continent, an ocean, some words.


13 Remember, Shapiro still intends to take the world by storm, by way of Yiddish literary greatness. Can a Jewish writer in a Jewish language conquer the world? If a Jewish writer in a non-Jewish language conquers the world, has he done anything for the Jewish people? What does all my writing in English amount to?


14 One of the first literary periodicals in Yiddish, started by Sholem-Aleichem in 1888, but forced to close by Aleichem’s bankruptcy in 1890.


15 A Warsaw-based publication run by the author Mordkhe Spektor (1858-1925), but whose last edition appeared sometime before 1896, the year of Shapiro’s arrival in Warsaw.


16 Y. G. Munk, Warsaw based bookseller and publisher. I am still endeavoring to find precise dates for Munk’s birth and death and the operation of the press and shop, but there are extant Munk editions of Hebrew works dating from at least the 1870s.


17 The earliest question my writing had to answer, literally written in the margins by friends and teachers serving as editors, was “Who is this for?” Spending my entire 20s without a bachelor’s degree, my tone was too academic. Trying to hand my work in at the schools I kept dropping in and out of, I was told I was too lyrical, too glancing in my analysis. As I turned to fiction and creative writing, the question persisted. Who is this for? Who is your audience? Where are the readers?

Isaac Bashevis Singer, when he received the Nobel prize for Literature, said that he continued to write in Yiddish after the Holocaust, because he is a believer in מחיה המתים, the Resurrection of the Dead. “I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: ‘Is there any new Yiddish book to read?’” In much the same way, I hope to write Jewish stories to continue conversations with the long dead rabbis who torment me, with the Jewish writers who delight me. When I read Grace Paley and Isaac Babel for the first time in 2019, I realized, this is my audience, this is who I write for. I do not write for readers. I write to be in conversation with other writers, many of them dead and gone.


18 An allusion to Aleichem’s character, Menachem Mendl, notorious for his unending faith in his disastrous financial speculations, and Aleichem’s own attempts to remake the fortune he had lost in 1890 on the stock market.


19 Yiddish writer Dovid Pinski (1872-1959), another mentee and collaborator of Peretz’. His move to Berlin in 1896 was the beginning of the end of his time in Europe. He moved to America in 1899, and then moved to the state of Israel in 1949.


20 Avraham Hirsch Kotik (1867 -1933) son of the Yiddish memoirist Yekhezkl Kotick (1847 -1921), and a socialist activist and translator into Yiddish in his own right.


21 Avrom Reyzen (1876-1953), another protegé of Peretz, and a prodigy, published his first poem in Peretz’s Yiddishe Bibliotek in 1891, at the age of 15.


22 What is meant by Shapiro’s comment about the Third Bar is unclear to me. The original term is די דרײ טאַקטן, and is definitely a reference to musical notation.


23 The terrain is surveyed and found wanting. I am less despairing than Shapiro; perhaps we might say, less arrogant. I do not believe myself to be a lone voice crying in a wilderness. There are others here too, some of whom tower above me, their names regularly appearing in both the Jewish and the wider press: Chabon, Krauss, Englander, Safran Foer. I have dozens of contemporaries I can turn to, talk with. But I read them all in English. Even those who write in Hebrew, which I speak, I read in English. Is there an intimacy we are denied? Has a Jewish writer ever reached out to me to speak, Jew to Jew, just us, no one watching. Then again, who would watch us? Who cares what a Jew has to say to a Jew but another Jew?


24 A depressing decline from the golden days of the paper’s Yiddish supplement Kol Mevaser, the first Yiddish paper in Russia, published between 1862 and 1872. Under editor-in-chief and publisher Aleksander Zederbaum (1816-1893) the paper saw the publication of Mendele Moykher Sforim and Avrom Goldfadn, among other Yiddish luminaries. My own sense of the Jewish press is of decline. The Forward is consumed by listicles, Tablet by neo-conservatives. Jewish Currents and Haaretz have little to no interest in fiction or creative non-fiction. The Jewish Book Review champions Jewish writers . . . once they have books. Where can my stories go to find their cousins? In what anthology could I be beside other Jewish writers of my generation? Can I only talk to ghosts, or do I have a message for the living?


25 These arguments persist, and I don’t see why Shapiro should complain about them. They are the foundation of all Jewish fiction, these clashes between Jews, these petty, quiet events in the midst of history.


26 Shapiro was Ukrainian, not Lithuanian, but the term had expanded to all non-Polish Jews who were rushing into Warsaw in the 1890s.


27 Peretz fell in esteem in the eyes of his student, for the simple crime of speaking the wrong language at a crucial moment. One can picture a young Shapiro tearing his hair out. How can there be hope for Yiddish Literature when one of its greatest practitioners can’t even conduct business in the language! This youthful purism was, in me, turned inwards. In my 20s, I berated myself for failing to keep kosher, failing to keep Shabbos, failing to keep up with my talmudic studies. Entering Jewish literature as a writer in my 30s, is there an equivalent? Who am I disappointed in?

So much of the Jewish world is swinging right, to keep in lock step with the state of Israel. I arrived in Israel in 2005, the year the state removed settlements from Gaza. How proud I was of the morality of that decision, the liberalism of it! Surely this was the beginning of a Jewish-led peace. But as I watched the slow imprisonment and pulverizing of Gaza over the next decades, and as my own mental health crisis inclined my sympathies to all who were trapped, hurt, wounded, I became disenchanted with Zionism and Israel. I left in 2008, a nervous wreck, heart broken by the “only Jewish country in the world.” Now I no longer believe in states and their promises, much as I no longer believe in sanity. The world is too thin for that, the mind too unpredictable. We must let go of purism, and embrace what emerges next.


28 Jewish literary greatness eluded Shapiro in his first sally. No meteoric rise, no weeping at the edge of the sea for having nothing left to conquer. Like Don Quixote he comes home beaten, finding the world both larger and smaller than he had hoped. And me? I am dipping my toe in. I am satisfied with my early publications, and am exploring a writers life. Readings, submissions, queries, working on sustained pieces. Is this failure? Is it success? It’s mostly just words, some printed, most online. A bigger and smaller world than I had hoped


29 Behind all this Jewish writing, political upheaval. Empires rise and fall, tsars are conspired against, assassinated, appointed, Presidents are elected, Jewish states come into being, Holocausts happen. What is a Jewish writer’s responsibility to all this? What language should he write his political screeds in? What role should she take in history?

When there was a brief rhetorical struggle over whether it was appropriate to label the conditions of US detention facilities for immigrants “concentration camps” I felt it my responsibility to get arrested protesting a July 4th parade with a group of Jewish activists. We were of the opinion that the detention facilities were indeed concentration camps, and that we as Jews must shout never again. These activists, who I perhaps over excitedly labeled “my comrades,” have become a Jewish community for me. I write about their Messianic pretensions, their artistic sensitivities, their cries for mutual aid (which I try to answer when possible). I conspire with them to make art. Some of them are Jewish writers too.


30 Like Shapiro, I have been alive for the turn of the century. I wonder if I’ve also lived to see a revival of a uniquely Jewish political consciousness. Conversations long thought dead and dying suddenly have new life. Twitter profiles of US 20 somethings earnestly declaring themselves Neo-Bundists spring up like mushrooms after the rain, and Zionism chugs along, a state ideology, with its free vacations for Americans and its mandatory army service for Israelis. Yiddish has taken on a new significance in this struggle, there are respectable amounts of revivalists in the summer programs and classes and even an app that teaches you the language, taught me the language. But has Jewish literature taken a role yet in the century to come?


31 Dr. Joseph Lurie, (1871-1937) a delegate to the First Zionist Congress, founder of the weekly Der Yud, and the literary editor of Der Fraynd until 1906.


32 Hayyim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), perhaps the first great modern Hebrew poet


33 Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (1865-1921), an ardent defender of Hebrew belles lettres.


34 Judah Steinberg (1863-1908), a romantic writer of Hasidic stories.


35 Shimen Shmuel Frug (1860-1916) polyglot, misanthrope, Russian literary darling and author of a screed, in 1899, dismissing the possibility of a great Yiddish literature.


36 Morris Rosenfeld (born Moshe Jacob Alter 1862, died 1923), prolific poet of the lives of immigrant tailors.


37 Leon Kobrin (1873-1946) playwright, poet, translator, whose passion for Yiddish only began upon his immigration to Philadelphia in 1892. Beginning as a disciple of Jacob Gordin (See note 35), his career spanned two golden ages of the Yiddish stage.


38 Z. Libin, born Yisroel Zalmen Hurvits, (1872-1955), a socialist playwright and author, and brother to Khayim Dov Hurvits (1865-1927), a contributor to Der Fraynd.


39 Jacob Mikhailovitch Gordin, (1853-1909), playwright and the father of Naturalism and Realism in Yiddish theater.


40 Abraham Liessen (1872-1938) Socialist revolutionary, poet and playwright. He came to New York in 1897, fleeing the secret police.


41 What is my responsibility as a Jewish writer in English? Shapiro complains of cheap translations and interpretations as shoddy patchwork on the dignity of Shakespeare. When I use my duolingo Yiddish to translate the greats of Yiddish literature into my mooncalfish English, whose dignity am I imperiling? On the other hand, reading Cynthia Ozick’s novella “Envy, or Yiddish in America”, I come across her creation the poet Edelshtein, wandering the wintry New York streets, feverishly hoping to find a translator for his poems. Is Yiddish a language of beggars who cannot be choosers? Is it so insulting to patch up the coat of a language dressed in rags? Or is it an insult to point out the rags in the first place?


42 David Frischmann (1859-1922) Modernist in Hebrew and Yiddish, translator of, among other authors, Tagore, Goethe, and the Brothers Grimm.


43 Jacob “Yankev” Dinezon, (1851-1919), an author and early champion of Peretz, whose novel Yosele exposed abuses in the Jewish religious education system and led to major educational reforms.


44 Samuel H. Setzer, (1876-1962), energetic translator and writer in Hebrew and Yiddish.


45 Pen name of Dr. Isidor Eliashev (1873-1924), the “Master of Thoughts” didn’t enter into the world of serious Yiddish literary criticism until Dr. Joseph Lurie (see note 27) urged him to in 1899. His enthusiasm for Yiddish literature took a distinct pessimistic turn in 1910, with the collapse of his marriage. Things seemed to look up after WWI, but then his depression and physical ailments took a turn for the worst, and he died in his native Kovno.


46 Hersh Dovid Nomberg, (1876-1927), a Yiddish bohemian whose stories of love, lust and loss I have encountered in translation in the delightful “A Cheerful Soul and other stories” (2021, Snuggly Books) trans. Daniel Kennedy


47 Sholem Asch (1880-1957), whose copious translated novels surrounded me in my youth, though I never picked them up.


48 Isaac Meir Weissenberg (1878-1938), tireless and occasionally cantankerous champion of Polish Yiddish, as opposed to the Lithuanian dialect or the Ukrainian.


49 Zalman Shneour, born Shneur Zalkind (1887-1959) writer in Hebrew and Yiddish, nominated in 1951 by the Hebrew PEN club for the Nobel prize.


50 Jacob Steinberg, (1887-1947), who wrote Yiddish in Peretz’ circles, but swore off it and on to Hebrew when moving to Mandate Palestine in 1914. Still, he never adjusted his Hebrew accent, writing in an Ashkenazi Hebrew until his death.


51 Isaac Dov Berkowitz (1885-1967) a translator of Sholem Aleichem, his father-in-law, into Hebrew, and a writer in his own right.


52 Eventually ambition leaves us, and we can get down to writing. Shapiro is no longer a Genghis Khan, and I can no longer continue to over identify with Shapiro, whose greatness and essentialness to the world of Jewish letters surpasses my own abilities. I must now admit the gulf between us, me, unproven and trying in English, and him, a master of Yiddish. I’ll visit him at his grave in Los Angeles one of these days, and thank him for the advice.


53 Every Jewish writer post the Shoah has heard this call, and has had to answer in their own language, in their own way. Hebrew is the future, some of us say. I do not speak Yiddish, we say. I am not even Ashkenazi, others reply. Still, the voice is sharp and clear. Why does it keep calling? Why can’t it be satisfied with the short spurt of the river that Shapiro describes?

I am not a Yiddish writer, but I am creating a Jewish literature for here, for now. And part of that literature by necessity is about and for and in Yiddish. Yiddish is the present and the future. Yiddish is as alive as the pulse in my thumb, as it presses the iPhone screen and answers the cartoon owl’s questions in Yiddish.


54 I end here, on Shapiro’s bitter optimism. Writing in 1945, it is unclear to me how much he knows about the devastation of his world and audience. But surely he knows something has shifted, that there is a dying at hand. He transitions from here to several sections of craft thoughts and writing advice. He covers what there is to learn from other arts, how to learn what not to do from others failures, whether Yiddish will ever be free from comparisons to German. In the following pages he declares “The Yiddish language has worked a spell on me. She is, after all is said and done, my most beautiful love, and I hope to die at her feet.”

That spell is being worked on me by Jewish literature more broadly. I have my answer now of what to read. Shapiro’s listing above is curriculum enough, and more gets written every day. I am a Jew awash in books, as Jews always have been. One day Jews will swim in my words too.


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Mordecai Martin is an Ashkenazi Jewish writer from New York with ties to Mexico City and Philadelphia. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Catapult Magazine, Longleaf Review, Peach Magazine, Autofocus Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, and The Hypocrite Reader. His fiction has been featured in Identity Theory, Timber Journal, X-Ray Lit, Gone Lawn, Knight’s Library Magazine, Funicular, and Sortes. He is obtaining an MFA in creative writing at Randolph College in Virginia. He tweets and instagrams @mordecaipmartin and blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Dec 25: Merry Christmas & an Invitation to Send Us Your Reading Recs


Merry Christmas!

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Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours. Thanks for reading this year's Advent Calendar, all of which you can now find collected here. We'll take a break now for a bit, but invite you to tell us what you loved reading this year, essay-wise. 

Either fill out the Recommended Reading google form here or send us an email with your recommendations. Anything essay or essayistic that you got into this year is fair game. Doesn't have to have been published this year, but bonus points if it was. We'll run a digest post with all of our riffs and recommendations in early 2023, so get us yours by the end of the year.

—Ander & Will

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Saturday, December 24, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 24, Dave Griffith, Station X: Christmas Eve, Strawtowne Pike, Bunker Hill, IN




Station X: Christmas Eve, Strawtowne Pike
Dave Griffith

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Author’s note: “Station X” is part of a 14-part collaborative text and audio project between myself and printmaker and musician, Kyle Peets, that reflects upon daily life during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the project is not explicitly religious, it does borrow the narrative structure from the popular Lenten ritual the Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross, in which pilgrims reenact the Passion of Jesus Christ by processing and praying before tableaux depicting different moments from that story.

The text and accompanying ambient music were composed independently of one another during the pandemic at a distance of over 2,000 miles—me in Indiana and Kyle in Oregon. Kyle did not have access to the text I was writing while he composed, and I did not have access to the music he was composing while writing. This was to ensure that any synchronicities would be accidental.

We suggest reading the piece, then listening to the recording.

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That was at the new house.

At the old house on Stratowne Pike, the house my grandparents and my two aunts moved into when my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, we would walk out past the barn, across the barren field toward a dark windbreak. It was farther than it looked, and colder out there in the middle of the field than it was close to the house, and so we always bundled ourselves in hats and scarves before beginning the walk out to the wood.

My dad would carry my brother on his shoulders at least part of the way. My uncles would be carrying cans of beer, which they plucked from the case cooling on the back porch. Out there in the woods there wasn’t much to see, really, except some rusted farm equipment, old beer cans, maybe a whiskey bottle. On the walk, my dad had a knack for finding arrowheads just sitting on top of a furrow, turned up when the field was plowed under.

This is the house where we gathered for many Christmases and Thanksgivings, where we would play heated games of Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary, and then stay up late giving dramatic readings from the Collected Poems of James Whitcomb Riley, the so-called Hoosier Poet, whose 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie” inspired the creation, years later, of the comic strip.
Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
      Ef you
          Don't
               Watch
                     Out!
In my memory, the poem took the place of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in our Christmas Eve ritual.

But that house is gone now. Four years ago, a tornado blew through the county and came near enough to nudge the house off its foundation. House inspectors came and judged that it was no longer a safe place to live, so it was condemned and razed. All that is left is the gravel drive with its strip of grass and weeds down the middle, and a faint outline of where the foundation had been.

Sometimes when I am driving back from Indianapolis, after a weekend with my kids, I make a quick detour off route 31 and visit the empty lot, remembering the feeling of anticipation I felt as the house came into sight; how the dogs would begin to bark and rush out to our van to greet us, followed by my uncles who would come out to ask if they could help carry luggage; how I would hug them, or, as I got older, shake hands; how as we all walked into the house my uncles would grab beers from cases chilling on the porch, and, later, as I got older, I would grab one, too.

In the Google satellite images, images taken from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency map data, the shape of the gravel drive is still clearly visible; the way that it ran parallel to the north side of the house and then made a loop around the garage and then met back up with the drive again. When you zoom in to several hundred feet from the ground it looks like the looped rope of a snare.

But when you drag the small icon of a person over the old gray asphalt, it glows blue, meaning that a Google car has driven past. I drag the little orange person over the green fields, my cursor holding them by one arm, their legs dangling and swinging with the sudden motion, like someone being carried away by a clutch of balloons, and drop them on the blue road in front of the driveway. It is then that the house appears. There it is: the white gable of the roof is peeking from behind a line of trees in full leaf. Orange daylilies flank the entrance to the drive.

According to the timestamp at the bottom of the screen, it is June of 2009. It is a glorious day. The sky is a wash of light blue at the horizon that grows more and more intense and saturated with elevation. Among the white puffs of clouds it is deep robin’s egg, and with a dragging of the mouse upward I can see that the sun is white and blurry at its nadir and beyond the sun it is Marian.

It must be early June because the corn in the adjacent fields has just emerged, several inches high.

If I close my eyes, I can feel the heat of that sun and smell the odor of those lilies.

A few seconds of meditation and I am there walking that drive way; the noise of my shoes on the gravel like a needle traveling the groove of a record.

*
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). His essays and reviews have appeared in print and online at the Paris Review, The Normal School, Another Chicago Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Utne Reader, Killing the Buddha, and Image, among others.

Kyle Peets is a multi-disciplinary artist and educator who has exhibited his work nationally and abroad. He has had solo exhibitions at Platte Forum gallery (Denver, CO) as well as various group exhibitions: Character Profile at Root Division gallery (San Francisco, CA), Art Is Our Last Hope at The Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ), and Art Shanty on the frozen White Bear Lake (Minneapolis, MN). His work has been published in the periodical SPRTS by Endless Editions (New York, NY), and is archived in the Watson Library Special Collections, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MoMA Manhattan. He received his MFA in Printmaking from the University of Iowa and a graduate certificate in Book Arts from the Iowa Center For The Book.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 23, Jenny Spinner, Um Aidan




Um Aidan
Jenny Spinner

*
—Amman, Jordan, December 2022

I remember that iris, a dome of florets now more gray than blue, not solid but patterned, with bits of white breaking through the way light spills from the bottom slit of a closed door. Back then, we spent hours holding each other’s gaze, locked in study and reassurance: I’m here. You’re here. Once, while changing him in an airport bathroom—he was about six months old—a woman leaned in, interrupting us. She put a wrinkled hand on my arm, and said, “I remember that, too. Don’t blink.”

But I did blink, inevitably, and now he’s more man than boy, elbows propped on an aluminum-topped table, sweatshirt sleeves pushed back, popping small balls of falafel into his mouth. He brought me here because he knew I’d love it—your kind of food, Mom—and I realize he finally knows me the way I know my own mother. Which means he knows only what he can bear to know. We’re at a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint tucked into a covered alley off a busy street in Wasat al-Balad. He orders foul and hummus and mouttabal. Someone slaps two round discs of bread on the table. There’s no menu, but my firstborn knows what he’s doing.

In the last few days, we’ve shared more words than we have since he was a child. He tells me about his visit to Palestine, the differences between Moroccan and Iraqi dialects, the Circassians who guard the royal family, and that time he inadvertently walked into the quiet room in the library and forty pairs of eyes lifted to stare at him, not hostile, just looking. When the man at the market across from the university gate asks why he is studying Arabic, he says “because I love the culture” not “politics.” He leads me inside: When the fruit comes out, it’s time to leave. Women sit in the back of the cab, not the front. We talk about the crazy traffic in Amman and the constant honking, and then he remembers that time he drove home to Philadelphia from the shore and a violent thunderstorm flooded the roads and he couldn’t see at all and he was terrified. He’d only had his license for six weeks, and he didn’t want to be in charge anymore. He wanted to give it all back, but he couldn’t, so he pulled into a mall parking lot to wait it out, only to have an unsympathetic guard insist he keep moving. It’s happened to him twice, he tells me, when he’s been on the road and it’s so dangerous that he can’t see and the only thing he can do is white-knuckle the wheel and makes all sorts of promises to himself and to God if only he survives. You know that feeling? he asks me.

Just that morning, after the latest test results arrived in my inbox—the doctor can’t reach me here but the tests can—I’d sunk into a heap on the chair in the corner of my hotel room. The doom in my stomach rose to my throat, and I swallowed hard, trying to breathe. By the time we met up later in the day, I had decided I wasn’t going to tell him, but then I did, a little, enough. His eyes met mine for about five seconds too long. Those eyes. I’m here. You’re here. I’m still here.

Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile this man of mine with the boy who was so shy as a child that he couldn’t look anyone in the eye. At his first soccer game, when he was five, he sat on the sidelines and cried because he was too afraid. For so long, he clung to me like a shadow. But now, here he is, leading me all over this city, ordering my tea, hailing cabs, rifling through my wallet for the right bills, shooing off hagglers, translating for his host family. When we cross the street, I tuck into his side, watching not the traffic but his feet. When he moves, I move.

But I’m always a step behind these days, anxiety saddled to my waist, weighing me down as I try to keep up. At home, in the old life, I am the professor. Here I am the student. More than that, here I am Um Aidan. We’re climbing the steep road near his house as the sun sets in a pink splendor over the sandstone buildings dotting the hill. He’s telling me about Naji al-Ali’s Handala and the men who run coffee out to your car on silver trays and the dried miramia leaves his host mother will crumble into my tea, promising to cure me of any ails. Keep going, I want to say, my voice cracking with love and pride as he strides ahead with a confidence I’ve never had. My boy. Keep going and do not look back.



*
Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. She received her MA and PhD in English from the University of Connecticut and her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Penn State University. She is the author of Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1600 to 2000 (U of Georgia P, 2018).

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 22, Ander Monson on the Pleasures of a Book all about Road House



Pain Might Actually Hurt?:
on Sean T. Collins's Pain Don't Hurt

Ander Monson

*

1. On the spectrum of bad ideas for books, watching the Patrick Swayze movie Road House repeatedly and writing an essay a day about it for a whole year, 365 days straight, has to rank pretty high. My friend Sean (not T. Collins) once went to his parents’ cabin when they weren’t there, he told me, and took one of every pill he found just to see what would happen. That was not a good idea, but it's one with a relatively limited half-life, unless they were into some really weird shit. I remember he said he just got bad diarrhea, which is about as positive as an outcome as one could imagine. But an essay a day—for a year—about Road House is a lot.

2. To be fair I recently watched another movie 146 times and wrote a book about it, so I know what I’m talking about when I tell you this isn’t a great idea. I did write about Predator every day for a year, but I didn’t write an essay a day. I suppose, in retrospect, I could have.

3. I also haven’t, to tell the truth, yet finished the Road House book, which is Pain Don’t Hurt by Sean T. Collins: As of this writing I’m only on essay 121. It’s not a book you can just blow through, unlike Road House the movie which is very easy to blow through, though I have watched it, as of right now, in the middle of this sentence where I am meeting you, exactly once. I’m not quite sure how I missed it, having watched pretty much every other action movie of the 80s a lot, often on repeat. But I realized while writing Predator that of all the 80s action movies I’d never actually seen Road House, and neither had my wife. So we watched it last year.

4. It's a lot! It makes so many kinds of sense that it makes none. Road House is not a consistent piece of art except in its inconsistency. It’s a light, weird action movie that coasts along on a truly bizarre premise and the irresistible hotness of Patrick Swayze but by the end turns for no real reason into a brutal murderfest. The tone of the movie veers wildly and unexpectedly from wacky sexy zen to dark af for no reason I could discern. Little of the plot makes any sense, starting with its initial premise in which there is a world where you might hope to attract and pay nationally-known celebrity bouncers six figures (in 1980s money!) to clean up your shitty local bar. Things devolve from there. Few of the movie’s lines of dialogue hold together when you look at them for more than a few seconds (which Collins directs our attention to many times, for instance the classic line "Does a hobbyhorse have a wooden dick?," uttered in the mode of a question like "Is the Pope Catholic," yet the answer, very obviously, is no; stuff like this happens a lot in the movie). If you would like a smart writer riffing on—not just bagging on—a kind of dumb movie, then you'll like this book a lot.

5. What drives any of us to our subjects? I watched it, thought it fun and forgettable, and filed it away. For Sean T. Collins, however, it became an animating force. A whetstone for the mind. An idea that was so crazy it just might work.

6. It does work. It works great. 

7. So you actually don’t have to buy Pain Don’t Hurt to read the essays, but you should if you can find a copy. It goes in and out of print, I guess, maybe because all 365 essays are available on his website under the tag ROADHOUSE. The blog versions have one major advantage, which is that they include screenshots from the movie to illustrate his points. This is useful if you haven’t seen the movie at all, or, like me only once, or can’t call to mind all the minor and often throwaway characters in the film, nearly every one of whom gets a deep treatment, or just don’t want to rewatch the movie to refresh yourself of all of its nuances.

8. The primary disadvantage of reading them onscreen is that the project really is a book; it reads better that way, as something you can hold in your lap and that has all the authority of bookness to it and all of the weird uneven sexiness of Road House. This is a source of great friction between the authority of the artifact and the dumb idea and subject matter of the book.

9.There are a lot of good introductions to Road House and why anyone might care about Road House in this book, but my favorite so far is in 107, “Dalton’s Back,” a tight little essay about just that, the spectacle of Dalton’s sexy back:

Road House, when appreciated properly, is less a film than an ecosystem: hyper-efficient, factory made late-‘80s star vehicle; barely competent, incoherent MST3K fodder; rock-solid action flick; obvious, excessive homoerotica; smarter than it looks; dumber than it realizes; a Ben Gazzara film; a Terry Funk film. When you watch Dalton’s flawless, godlike arms, traps and shoulder blades flex and contract in harmony, you’re watching the character and the movie in metonymy. You’re watching a real physical thing—Patrick Swayze’s beautiful, beautiful body—do what Patrick Swayze’s character and Patrick Swayze’s movie are also doing. As below, so above.

10. The movement here is obviously the real show. And like many iterative projects over a sustained period of time, the life of the writer often sweeps into the project in big and obvious ways, as it does in 53, “Why We Fight,” which is also another great introduction to ways of experiencing Road House:

'This has been, without question, one of the worst weeks of my life, but one man offers succor.’” / I tweeted this as I sat down to write today’s Road House essay. I knew exactly what I was going to write about: I knew the scene, knew the moment, knew the angle, knew how to flesh it out. It’s one of the ideas that made me want to start this whole project in the first place. It wasn’t until I began writing that I realized the thing I posted on Twitter before writing today’s Road House essay is today’s Road House essay. / I’m not going to talk about the week I’ve had, or why it’s been so bad, bad enough that as I type this I am home along with my stepson instead of out with my partner and our friends because we were supposed to go to an all-sad-songs karaoke party together and I am too sad for Sad Song Karaoke. It’s not really my story to tell anyway. I’ll tell you what is, though: Road House.

11. This is the value of writing about Road House in this way. It becomes your subject. It becomes your only subject, and the subject you will always have, whatever else happens. You will always have your bad idea, your self, and your Road House.

12. Have I ever been to an actual road house? I’m not sure. None come to mind. I’ve been to plenty of dive bars, and a lot of non-dive-bars and some not-quite-dive bars, many of which are in houses that have been located on roads, and I’ve been to some chain restaurants with music where you’re supposed to throw the peanut shells on the floor in a performance of, maybe, road housery, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to anything you could actually call an outright road house. I mean, I understand a road house is a tavern, inn, or club on a country road in its initial incarnation, like the Inn of the Last Home (shout out to Otik’s Spiced Potatoes), and I feel certain that at least one of Collins’ essays needs to address what makes a road house a road house, but I haven’t read it yet. I would be surprised if I have thought of a question about the movie that he has not (yet).

a. Is it the possibility of witnessing a bar brawl that makes a road house a road house?

b. Does a road house require live music, ideally the Jeff Healey Band?

c. I feel like a road house must at least have beer and a pool table and definitely not call it a billiards table.

d. I’m not even sure if it has to be on a road. A snowmobile trail seems like it’d be fine. Preferable, even.

e. Is the primary feature of a road house that it’s for travelers, not regulars? In this sense is Applebee’s a road house? Can Applebee’s be a road house? I’ve definitely been closer to witnessing or possibly instigating an actual bar brawl at Applebee’s than anywhere else.

f. the only actual Road House in Tucson is a brew-and-view movie theater. I wonder if they ever show Road House? Perhaps they will when the remake (!!) comes out in 2023, and if they do I will endeavor to see it there.

13. The reason I love bad idea essays is not because they seem dumb or bad but that they’re hard. Anyone can write a good idea essay. But only a real pro—or a real fool, and it’s hard to tell which you are when you start one, which is the entirety of the stakes of the bad idea essay—can write a bad idea to its exhaustion/completion. Only after exhausting yourself will you see if it was worth it.

14. Let me say it is always worth it, even if the results don't please you or aren't easy to publish. It's the process that matters.

15. 365 essays about Road House is an idiotic thing, and its idiocy is part of its appeal. I am often moved by iterative projects (like the kind Lawrence Lenhart made a promise to embark on in his Dec 20th advent essay), because in repeating an action every day or every week or every year you make time a subject.

16. Time is always a subject, as well as a tool, but in an iterative essay, time becomes unavoidably a primary subject. How long can Christa Wolf sustain her One Day a Year project (until she died!)? How many comment cards can Joe Wenderoth write and send to Wendy’s? How many nachos of Indiana can Sean Lovelace eat and write about? How many phone calls can Lenhart make and document by the end of the year, and will he survive it? How many letters can Nicole Walker write to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey? (The linked one, Dec 2, 2022, was the last one, if just because Ducey is finally leaving office. Respect to her!) 

17. An aside: Have you thought about just how good a deal books of essays and short stories are? I just bought the new Jack Driscoll collection 20 Stories for less than twenty bucks. That’s me getting 20 stories for a dollar each! I get to keep them forever, too.

18. Twenty dollars seems to me like a lot for a novel, however. You only get one novel for that money. You could have got 20 essays. Or, shit, 50 poems!

19. I mean that a good poem or story or essay stays with me more than a good novel does. I know I'm in the minority but that's how I'm built. Maybe I’m just a shitty reader. I’ve been told that before.

20. I am reminded of the time when we were kids that my brother and I each got $50 for Christmas to spend as we liked. Ben took his $50 as one bill. I wanted 50 ones, which I got. 50 felt more substantial than one, even if it was worth the same amount of money. Then we went to Marquette to spend them at American, seemingly the only good store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I still think 50 one dollar bills feels better than one 50 dollar bill, especially if you're a kid. But then my brother's an investment banker who lives in a giant house and I write advent essays for free on this website. Maybe there's a lesson in that.

21. The reason I love iterative projects is that the plot is inevitably the movement of the mind (or the life or the body) through time. Every piece is a technical problem: oh shit, what am I going to do today?  And the technical problem just gets harder as it goes deeper: How can I not bore myself on essay 241? (I'll have to let you know when I get there, but I feel like Collins is going to be able to solve this problem just fine.)

22. So when I read, say, essay 46, “The Agreement, Part Five: Tableau II” (he returns to many of the core ideas and scenes multiple times from multiple angles), I’m entertained and not a little amazed that we’re talking about the weird, short scene where a bar patron (Sharing Husband) offers to let another bar patron (Gawker/Groper) fondle his wife’s (Well-Endowed Wife's) breasts for $20. And then the guy doesn't even have the money! Even more entertainingly, this is the fifth (of seven I’ve so far encountered) essay on this weird throwaway moment in this weird, possibly throwaway film, and each manages to improbably get at some new aspect of the scene.

23. Possibly if this scene made any real narrative sense in the context of the film or sense at all really it might be less permeable to the mind of the essayist, and because Road House has so many inexplicable scenes like this Road House becomes an ideal cipher.

24. What I really like about essay 46 in particular is how it dead-ends into a set of references that I’ve never really seen anyone make before, and certainly not in this configuration and all at once. I’ll quote the end of the piece to show you:

But for now let’s look at this miserable bastard, transformed by the spectacle of the tripartite Agreement between Sharing Husband, Well-Endowed Wife, and Gawker/Groper from a belligerent cut-up to fucking Saul on the road to Damascus, transfixed by the sight, blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night, just completely poleaxed by watching one idiot feel up another idiot’s wife. / You don’t see that. You might still see it [I did initially mistype it as tit, amusingly, and felt that was meaningful enough to note —Ander] in the desert—shout out to the Orb—but you don’t see it at Duggan’s, and you don’t see it where Dalton works. Beautiful in its idiocy, the world Tilghman is building has no room for it. The Elves sail West and the Gawker and Heckler and Sharing Husband and Well-Endowed Wife disappear and so help me God the bar as I sit here writing this the bar is playing “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys and where is Dalton and Thomas Nast when you need them.”

See what I mean? I laughed hard at the Orb reference, cued as I was already by the Blinded by the Light ref, and that they’re exactly 25 years apart adds to the trick, and then when the (Tolkien) Elves show up I’m really here for it, and I just heard that Dropkick Murphys song for the first time only last year, and it’s a hell of a song with its own full commitment to its own bit. I mean that I see the stars in the sky and I can see him connecting them as he goes, and I’m here for the resulting constellation. 

25. Any iterative project—any restrictive form like this one is—breaks down at some point in its exercise over time. The pressure of the external form on the huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld and the pressure of that brain’s growing internal energy out against the artificial walls of the form: this is a thrilling plot and one I am always here for. I'm really really looking forward to the next couple hundred essays on Road House and to its inevitable breakdown: I hope it's a good one. And I hope I've also got you interested enough by the end of this essay to give these weirdo Road House essays some time. (I'm still not 100% sure if the movie is worth your time or not, but Collins is starting to sway me to yes.)


*


Ander Monson is one of the editors of Essay Daily and the author of Predator: a Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession (Graywolf, 2022), a book not (so far) on any of the year's Best Of lists which he is pretty sure is either an oversight or a category error.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 21, Susan Briante, Our Midwinter Days

 


Our Midwinter Days

Susan Briante


*



As I write this, the Christmas lights hung from our eaves strum a flickering tune against a sky the gray of water at the bottom of an old pan. The sun rose into clouds today and blued the Tucson afternoon for a little while, but now the color drains. If you asked me what I did during this sliver of a day, the list feels paltry: I ran on a trail beside the dried riverbed, came home, made a holiday card with my daughter, cooked some chicken with garlic and cannellini beans, threw a load of laundry in the wash, read, made some notes toward this essay. What more could there be to say?

As you read this, we (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) share our first midwinter day without the poet Bernadette Mayer. On December 22, 1978, Mayer made this day hers by writing a 119-page dream-to-morning-to-afternoon-to-evening account of her life as a writer, thinker, mother to two small children, and partner to poet Lewis Warsh. But “account” doesn’t capture the scope of her project. Mayer’s book-length poem Midwinter Day presents a brilliant mind narrating thoughts, memories and observations as she dreams, wakes, feeds children, goes with them (and Warsh) into the cold of Lennox, MA, to return library books and pick up groceries, goes home, reads to children, cooks, and writes. Her words careen and croon in a masterful musicality. Poet Alice Notley has called the work “an epic poem about an ordinary day.”  

I was first introduced to Mayer watching her read her poem “Eve of Easter” on the Poetry Project’s Public Access Poetry Channel on You Tube. “Milton,” Mayer begins by addressing the author of Paradise Lost. “I have three babies tonight.” And from there she turns an evening of childcare into a rumination on literary legacy and mothering. (“I stole images from Milton to cure opacous gloom/To render the room an orb beneath this raucous/Moon of March, eclipsed only in daylight/Heavy breathing baby bodies…”) It is extraordinary and tender, and if you haven’t already read or seen it you might want to do so right now for a taste of Mayer’s heart and humor, ear and intellect. Recorded months before Mayer would write Midwinter Day, the black and white video spans 3:07 minutes but seems much longer.

Midwinter Day builds off that same impulse to do more than make do with whatever life gives us, to take a situation like baby sitting and make art from it. Just as Melville, Hawthorne and Milton become Mayer’s companions in childcare in “Eve of Easter,” Catullus, Freud, Hawthorne and Joyce all make appearances in Midwinter Day, where they are joined by movie stars (Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and Jane Fonda) as well as friends (poets Clark Coolidge, Ted Berrigan, Notley, among many others); even the Shah of Iran makes several cameos throughout the poem. People come and go in Mayer’s dreams (which open the book) as well as in her memories which wind their way throughout her narration along with observation, literary and local history, psychoanalysis and inventory.

In my memory of first reading Midwinter Day, I sit on a red leather couch bought from a Dallas coffee shop for $100. (It smelled of espresso for months.) I hold Gianna on my lap cradled in one arm, the book in the other. I look up from book or daughter across the six lanes of traffic in front of our house to a splinter of park, dead leaves and black walnut trees. I’m waiting for Farid to come home from his teaching gig at a private high school across town, so I can hand him our child and start working on writing or dinner. That first winter with my daughter, the days felt long (even though the daylight was short), and I felt isolated and overwhelmed by motherhood. But the specificity of that particular moment on the couch feels a little off. Gianna almost never took naps. If she was still, I was probably nursing her, which would have made the book hard to hold. My memory reshapes its banks like a river bound to currents and geographies I barely perceive. Mayer was fascinated with the technologies of recall. In her 1971 project/ installation Memory, she shot a roll of 35 mm film every day for a month and kept a journal. But her proposal for Midwinter Day extended beyond remembrance. She tells us “I had an idea to write a book that would translate the detail of thought from a day to language like a dream transformed to read as it does, everything, a book that would end before it started in time to prove that the day like the dream has everything in it, to do this without remembering….” 

As in James Agee’s unwieldy masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Midwinter Day teams with unflinching descriptions: of the items crowding a table or closet or hallway, the books that line the shelves of the local bookstore, the businesses, churches and municipal buildings that make up their town. “What an associative way to live this is,” she writes. Mayer doesn’t shy away from registering the struggle of parenting and art making at the fringes of an economy (“sickening holidays, cold rooms running out of money again/ nothing to do but poetry, love letters and babies.”) But rather than register complaint or critique, Mayer seems most intent in keeping herself interested. The action of making sauce for spaghetti stretches across a page but becomes another way to think of writing as she describes “the commas” of the “cheapest small onions” and the “letters of straight pasta.” Summaries of the books she reads to her daughter (Big Dog, Little Dog; The Three Little Pigs; Popped-out-of-the-Fire) give way to ruminations on Sekhmet, the wife of Ptah, or Septimius Felton, a character of Hawthorne’s. Even when her topics remain in the mundane there’s something enlivening (if not enlightening) about witnessing her get it all down and make it worthy of a place on the page (next to Hawthorne, Milton and Melville). There’s something both familiar and refreshing about Mayer’s feat today when we filter our faces and soundtrack our moments to share in a marketplace of attention. More than posing or posting, Mayer recognizes and honors. She acknowledges that her work is a privilege as she imagines “a Latin Sabine or Etruscan mother/ Who didn’t have the time, chance, education or notion/ To write some poetry so I could know/ What she thought about things.”

I try to imagine my mother in 1978 in our split-level house in the New Jersey suburbs, where she could not walk to a store or find accessible public transportation to get anywhere. What would she have written about? A view to the cul-de-sac, the ragged oak tree, crumbling driveway, the Japanese maple, manhole cover, fire hydrant, the long-legged girl who lived in the house on the corner until her parents divorced. For years, it sounded to me like every sentence spoken by the women in my family had a baseline of complaint, a backbeat of worry. Could my mother have written herself into a legacy or history or out of isolation? 

In Midwinter Day, Mayer lists all the women who penned what she calls “a secret history:”

Anne Bradstreet and Tsai Wen Gi,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice Notley and me,
Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, Denise Levertov….

The list continues encompassing H.D. and Nikki Giovanni, Murasaki Shikibu and Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks and Marina Tsvetayeva, among others (including “the saints.”) In its compilation Mayer creates both a genealogy and a community. 

On December 22, 2018, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Midwinter Day, I joined a group of 32 other poets who wrote our day into sections (Dreams, Morning, Noontime, Afternoon, Evening, and Night) on a shared Google doc. I wrote while I hosted family from France, drove 7 hours to California and mourned the first Christmas I would spend without my father. The book Midwinter Constellations collects all our entries and publishes them without individual attribution. When I read back through it, I feel the beauty of forgetting for minute which voice is mine in a chorus of the quotidian.

On November 22, the day that Bernadette Mayer died, I dreamt the moon had fallen from the sky. When I woke the moon was still there. Today, less than a month later, we sit on the dark side of the year, maybe late in the day and perhaps late in our lives. My mother has been gone since 2014. 

When I wake today at 6:30 in the midwinter darkness, the Christmas lights continue their flickering, little flashing beads, a rosary for our eyes: light and dark, day and night, paper and ink. The sun’s a little mother who warms and feeds and allows us to see what is right in front of us.

In these December days we feel our scarcity. But that’s just what the myth of American individualism and the treadmill of capitalism wants us to feel. (For more on this, listen to Alexis Pauline Gumbs). It keeps us working. It keeps us scared. A poet like Mayer shows otherwise. Much remains even at the end of the season, at the end of a year, even at the end of a life. Today in places like New York and Los Angeles, online and in Amsterdam, poets will gather to read Midwinter Day in honor of Mayer. On this darkest day, we need to believe that the sun will return, that the children will eventually fall asleep, there will be another hour to write and so much more to be said, that there’s a reader who will follow us to the next page.



*


Susan Briante is the author of Defacing the Monument (Noemi Press 2020), essays on immigration, archives, aesthetics and the state, winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism in 2021. She is a professor of English in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona. Briante is also the author of three books of poetry:  Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders.


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 20, Lawrence Lenhart, Toward an Unregulated Confessionalism: Prolegomenon to The Calling Party



Toward an Unregulated Confessionalism: 
Prolegomenon to The Calling Party

Lawrence Lenhart


*


With this sentence, I start a new essay.       Its concept is twelve years in the making.

 

Starting January 1, 2023, I will begin calling everyone in my phonebook. That's 431 calls total, or 1.18 per day for a year.

I am wary of this text [already] because it isn't mine. (Replace "text" with "life.")

            

How to begin writing a text for which I won't be the author? I stall by calling forth this prolegomenon.


 

My first false start was at a bonfire in 2015. I swiped through the digital rolodex as if it was a roulette wheel, and it landed on RM. I sputtered a bit before he hung up. Where I meant to break the seal, instead I soldered it shut.

"Each act of reading the 'text' is a preface to the next. The reading of a self-professed preface is no exception to this rule" (Spivak xii). Might someone, somewhere already be rereading the book I have not even begun writing?

   
   

The database is especially full of area codes in PA, OH, DE, AZ, and CA. My main milieus, strange avenues.  

This essay is no one's. Instead, "the text belongs to language, not to the sovereign and generating author" (Spivak, lxxiv).

 

I will call everyone, no exceptions: my best friend from the old neighborhood in Southwestern Pennsylvania; my old boss/lifeguard captain in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; whoever picks up at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Akron, Ohio; my ex-fiancée's mom in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; my estranged and incarcerated cousin in Huntsville, Alabama; my son's best friend's mom's best friend in Flagstaff, Arizona.

    I will likely call you too.


*


In communication theory, the Johari window is a “self-awareness tool that helps us understand the differences between how people see us and how we see ourselves” (Kesgin).


Fig. 1. The Johari Window


Epistemologically, the blind spot is where I wonder what you know about the frequency of my voice or the swirl of hair on the back of my head. It is what you whisper about me when I leave the room, the state, this relationship.


*


How about a new slur for millennials? Now they call us Generation Mute. An article by Alex Jeffries begins, “Ring, ring! Who’s there? If you’re a millennial, you have no idea.” Studies report that seventy-five percent of millennials screen their calls due to apprehension anxiety.        Most contacts in my phonebook are millennials, meaning perhaps I’ll only reach 153 of you 


—at least initially. I will call back. I will get through.


   

Starting January 1, 2023, I will begin calling everyone in my phonebook. That's 431 calls total, or 1.18 per day for a year.

I probably have “telephonophobia” too but have irreversibly committed myself to this dare

          
, a self-administered immersion therapy.  


“I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself” (Montaigne). But what if we are made through others?





 

I am calling…

  • because I miss you and thus, I miss myself.
  • because I’ve forgotten you and thus, I have forgotten myself.
  • because I fear you and thus, I fear myself.
  • because I’ve neglected you and thus, I have neglected myself.
  • because I love to hate you.


In “Son,” Forrest Gander writes, “I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love.” 

   

*


The Johari window idealizes the open arena as a site of public self-awareness. Think autobiography or personal essay. To get to the arena, one should strive to eliminate the hidden self through disclosure; reduce their blind spots by soliciting feedback from others; and mitigate against the unknown through self-discovery. 

Fig. 2. Essay Genres in the Johari Window


I believe each panel of the Johari window corresponds to its own unique epistemic domain of life writing. Self-awareness can be likened to autobiography or the personal essay; disclosure to regulated confessionalism; and self-discovery to meditation/revelation á la speculative nonfiction. But what kind of essay can be written from within the so-called blind spot? 

To clarify, most confessionalism is regulated. An author carefully selects sensitive information from their personal history and discloses it in the essay. However, this process of selection belies the artifice of the confessional genre. Selective disclosure has as much to do with the disclosive tendency as it does the concealing one. 

The personal essay says, “Our engagement ended because we were much too young.” The confessional essay says, “I called off the engagement because I was a shithead.” The speculative essay says, “In another possible world, are we still together in a loving relationship?”

Within the blind spot, though, I must admit the ways in which I cannot see me. Instead, I solicit feedback, ask others for their testimonials. The essential difference between biography and heterobiography is the emphasis on alterity. Crowdsourced heterobiography represents a kind of unregulated confessionalism. It is conveyed through a valve from which I cannot stop the flow. Here in the blind spot, my secrets are unsafe with you.

The heterobiography says whatever it wants about me, directly to me. 


*

Other Crowdsourced Heterobiographies

1. Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (MoMA; 2010) was a three-month performance in which the seated artist engaged in a mutual gaze with an audience of one thousand, most of whom were strangers, but also included friends, colleagues, and even a former lover (MoMa par. 3). 

My method—of reaching out to an audience of 431 people—addresses my writerly desire to be recognized as a writer by those who primarily exist outside of my artistic network. By inciting this encounter, I will momentarily, bureaucratically exist as an artist to each respondent. The consenting statement at the beginning of each call will include the following words: “this is for a new book project I’m working on.” This phrase will serve as a loose reminder that I am a writer. However, I will immediately cede that role as I coax my audience into the text-making. 

Q: Is it the public backdrop of MoMa that renders the seated artist as art? Is Abramović, later seated in her private apartment, inherently artless? A: Heterobiography begins at the turnstile, with the breach, in the gaze returned to sender. Only when the audience is present is her alterity ensured.

2. Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers employs structured interview to elicit responses to a set of twelve questions. The questions are posed to woman of Indian descent living in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She then re-arranges the responses in docu-poetic collage. In her own prolegomenon, she writes:
—The project as I thought it would be:
an anthology of the voices of Indian women.
                              . . .
—The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane.
I have routinely referred to this as my favorite book.

3. Joseph Bradshaw calls Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox a “reverse memoir, an autobiography composed using only others’ words.” Inbox is avowedly “uncreative writing” (Goldsmith), a copy-paste job that literally re-presents every email in the “author’s” inbox on September 11, 2004, arranged in reverse-chronological order. 

Gordon is nowhere and everywhere to be found in the manuscript. “Nowhere” as in this book was “written” with a mouse and not a keyboard. “Everywhere” as in Gordon is the book’s sole addressee. It is, above all, a heterobiography of the writer in thrall to “dinky pobiz stuff.” 

4. For The Last Interview, David Shields transcribed the 2,700 interview questions asked of him over the past forty years. Through a regimen of rewriting, editing, and remixing the questions, he arrives at an anti-memoir of sorts. According to the jacket copy, “the result is a lacerating self-demolition in which the author—in this case, a late-middle-aged white man—is strangely, thrillingly absent.” This is at least a conceptual solution to the existential question posed in the advice column, “Should White Men Stop Writing?” (The Blunt Instrument).    


*


I have made myself a slim deck of cards…


… to shuffle as the phone rings.


*

You think; therefore, I am.        I am building a new kind of answering machine. (This is not about posterity.) 
   



What then to do with the data of 431 phone calls? 

I will use a call recorder (Rev), transcription service (otter.ai), data analytics software (Dedoose), word processor (MS Word), and digital sound workstation (GarageBand) to create an audio-biography, a composite anti-memoir in the second-person comprised of my concatenated acquaintances. 


Derrida’s différance indicates both difference in and deferral of meaning.

         

Through différance, “meaning is disseminated across the text and can be found only in traces, in the unending chain of signification” (Mambrol).

 

The Calling Party is a collective heterobiography that signals the death of compartmentalization. A fuzzy feedback arena. 

   

One may choose to listen by area code/milieu. Or filter by theme. To hear all responses to, “What would be a fitting way for me to die?”  in succession, by toggling to Q13. There’s a randomizer too that produces a new text each time it is refreshed, resulting in a collage of sound bites. When I press that button on January 1, 2024, the resulting text will be the basis for the official codex for The Calling Party.  


*


If I’m being honest, parts therapy proved I was ready to write this book. Of course, it was never about the fear of confronting 431 others, but instead the fear of confronting 431 selves. 

Here I am, trying to reintegrate.

To survive the daily force field of complex PTSD, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, alcoholism, dyshidrotic eczema, insomnia, sleep paralysis, and auditory processing disorder.    

Internal Family Systems (IFS) says there is a family of sub-personalities within me, that I am my own psychic ecology. I am an only child; and yet I know how to brother and sister as I parent my kids. I mother even as I father. 

I am Lawrence and Larebear, professor and “dude,” normie and edgelord, Hilfiger and Hot Topic, devoted family guy and chronic bachelor, homebody and wanderer, etc.

The premise of IFS is that the sub-personalities are internally conflicted with the “core Self,” a phrase that makes me blush.   

The core Self smacks of personal essaying. If I am skeptical of the personal essay, it’s because I am equally skeptical (read: jealous) of the spectacle of the “core Self” supposedly anchoring it

For now, all I have are my sub-personalities. Subterranean, they must be called forth from the blind spot—by a therapist, exorcist, or you through this crowdsourced heterobiography. Please pick up.


*
Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19), Backvalley Ferrets: A Rewilding of the Colorado Plateau (UGA: Crux), and Of No Ground: Small Island/Big Ocean Contingencies (WVU: In Place). With William Cordeiro, he wrote Experimental Writing: A Writer's Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). His prose appears in journals like Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner. He is Associate Chair of English at Northern Arizona University and Executive Director of the Northern Arizona Book Festival.