Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shaelyn Smith: The Goal is to Claim a Suit

It feels late. I am visiting a friend in New York. We walk through light snow across Broadway, headed to some dive, some Upper West Side billiard bar. We consider simultaneously accessing both the critical & creative articulations of emotion. We move slowly in the cold, but slow is not static. “People don’t explode,” writes Susan Stewart.

Danny and I order beers; talk around what is quiet, silent, unbearable. How this affects our experiences. We get quarters to shove into the pool table. After John Cage dies, Merce Cunningham muses, “on the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, & John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home & John’s not there.” These two sides to a thing that is one thing. What can we know of internal combustion, spontaneity, formation of the effable, the perpetual, the sound of it? On the one hand, each piece matters. On the other hand, each piece matters. Danny racks the balls.


In “A Manifesto For Cyborgs” Donna Haraway argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and responsibility in their construction.” Good writing, I think, does this—it takes pleasure in confusing boundaries, but also takes responsibility for constructing them. As nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review, I value that which forages new ground where none thought new ground could be found. I appreciate refrain from pulling us along for a direct purpose, but rather that which suspends us in moments of both utter disbelief, and the etching out of how we come to believe. In the same way, I like the associative that meanders a territory of meaning, rather than that which simply wanders without specific purpose. I thrive on delicate balance of the direct and the indirect, the fabricated and the normative, the natural and the unnatural. As a writer of nonfiction, I don’t want to be scared to admit that in the production there is also reproduction, and that in the knowing, there is ultimately an unknown. As people, I think we must understand that often the personal is political, but not always. That the political is, also, not always personal. We must be comfortable both blurring these boundaries and unpacking them, and feel confident enough to rest in a place of discomfort or dissatisfaction.


These are your hands, formulating this triangular rainbow in space. John Ashbery says, “I could think only of my own ideas, though you surely have your separate, private being in some place I will never walk through.” That divine presence of thine own ideas. We say, it’s your go. We hand over the pool cue. That divided preservation of time and space.

That said, everything fails. Why attempt in the first place? I break. The balls scatter. It’s not about the rejection of closure, but rather the reiteration thereof. Try, know you will fail. Still try. There’s a way to return to something, to mop again & again a mess, but when returning to something, we bring something else with us, & leave thus with a new thing as well. No matter how stubborn. It’s not about revision; it’s about re-appropriation. That’s the reason we learn to laugh. That’s the reason we fall in love. John Cage says there are only two sounds that mean nothing—laughter & silence.

My father always asks me why I would waste my time re-reading or re-watching things. Danny sinks the eight, re-racks the balls. In the repetition there is a rejection of closure, but also a reconstruction & reinterpretation of meaning. What it means to close something, but moreso what it means to be close to the thing you have learned to close. A girl I used to babysit would have me read the same book to her over & over, sometimes as many as 14 times in a row. This book is about a badger, & the badger’s younger sister has a birthday party under the dining room table. Ionie had the whole thing memorized; she was three years old. I would ask her why? why again? She would say, because I love it. What I think she meant about love is a thing repeated, a thing with grandiose & innate expectations that can be broken afresh, again, & again, & again.


To avert a silence that could be static, I move faster. Take a shot & miss. Imagine listening to a record on the wrong speed. The hyper-speed cartoon voice. This is where I’m learning to be deliberate. This might be more about performance than intention. Take a sip of beer, take a deep breath, take another shot & win. Tracey Emin makes a distinction regarding her work, that there is a difference between an exhibitionist & a person who exhibits; that in exhibition the work exonerates its creator. We say art. We say perfection. We say silence. Emin sits by herself in a dirty bed of her own making.

Stewart writes: “the grotesque body thus can be effected by the exaggeration of its internal elements.” A ball flies off the table from a bum hit. We must go in search of this piece, take the parts as a whole. Nothing individually, inherently, has less weight or importance than any other. Abstraction, we say. Emotive, we say. The composition thereof becomes the narrative heat of the art.

The lights dim. We consider what could be considered GROTESQUE. From the root hidden place. A secret typically imbues shock, or something like it. Illicit, we say. Someone sinks the 8-ball before the end of the game. Who wins, we ask. Plenty of beautiful things remain hidden. The suffix indicates exaggeration & what is this moment, but some exaggerated notion of an emotion, a reaction. Here: hyperbole. Here: a hyperbola forms on an axis—a point of origin.


My best friend and I spent most of our early twenties shooting pool. We both had just graduated college with degrees that held little prospect for careers. It was the recession; we worked in restaurants. Though these endless post-shift nights of constant games we learned english, we learned how to rack, we learned how to drink, how to flirt, how to bet. We learned poker faces we would begin to use in the world outside the dark confines of the Alley Bar. We learned how to lie, how to cheat, how to hide, but we also learned how to be honest, how to let go, how to love one another. We learned angles and deflection, we learned how to take whiskey shots without squinching up our faces. We learned tangents and dialects and swerves. We learned jump shots and geometries and smooth transitions from one topic to the next. We learned how to stand on the footrest beneath the bar and lean our crossed arms over the top to push up our breasts. We learned that in the world of dive bars, and the world of dive bar games, we must learn the rules, but we also learned to make our own rules, and insist on responsibility for that making.


When I was young I was intriguingly terrified of the fat woman in floral cotton pants that stood outside of the 24-hour Wal-Mart to smoke cigarettes. My mother was not a very feminine person. She never taught me about make up or menstruation or sex or flirting or dating or dressing. My mother would take me with her to her volunteer shifts at the local food co-op with her long-haired, hippy friends who smoked pot and didn’t wear bras. My aunts were very practical women. My maternal grandmother passed away before I really got to know her. My paternal grandmother was a very stern Irish Catholic woman with enormous tits who rapped my knuckles with a knife for being improper at the dinner table. No one really taught me how to be a woman. No one really taught me how to be a man, either. My first friends were boys, most of who ended up queer. Most of my early female friends grew up queer, too. As a child, gender never really meant much to me. I played dress up with my father’s clothes more often than skirts and heels. I made my brother wear those:

Drugged up and decorous. I tell him he needs to be me and I tell him I need to be him. I am six years old, it is winter; I have figured out the camera. I have figured out what is allowed and what is not allowed, some age of reason. I am interested in gender and genitals. I have figured out how to figure this out, to get around the margins. Here put on this dress, I say. Here put on these shoes, I say. Here put on these pearls, I say. Now you are a girl, I say. Here hold this camera, I say. Jump-shot. I put on construction gloves, a ski mask, a flannel shirt and work boots. My tiny body totally eclipsed. I speak, muffled, but I imagine it goes, Now you are me and I am you. You are a girl and I am a boy. Now you dance, I say. That is what girls do. He does, he’s two and he spins and spins in his heels, his nightgown, his play make-up, some plastic jewelry, some unsung music. Dancing, he falls, cracking his two-year old skull on the corner of the cedar dressing trunk. He will be scared of this trunk for years. I will drink grape juice and tell him to stop crying and act more like an adult. The faint fuzz of my upper lip stained a deep purple, I will put my hand on my hip and tell him to act more like a man.

These women of my formative life taught me how to be quiet, silent, unbearable.


In “Why I Write” Joan Didion says “in many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” This is how I want to feel when I read your work; I want to enter your private space, but in order to do this properly you must force me to first encounter, pass through, and call into question my own private space.

That vast and biased territory. That undergrowth of confusion and indecision. That rotting mess of detritus we step over again & again & again.

Bully me into recognition. Bully me off the table so that I may learn how I must improve for the next round. Drink me under the table so I can go home and take responsibility for my own construction.

It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it gets me every time.


A woman I dated in New York told me she could see all of the pain I had ever felt present in my face. I took this as a compliment. Faces and work have a lot to do with one another. I respect faces that carry their pain out blatant. I respect faces that refuse to hide anything. I respect faces that construct their own kind of beauty out of all the dirty things that have happened, faces that make the grotesque seem quite feminine, faces that don’t apologize for their scars or tears or bruises. This is the most vulnerable kind of respect. These things may not seem beautiful, but they are honest, and honesty is the most beautiful thing we can share.


Eventually, it stops snowing. Danny & I shoot another game; share another pitcher. Later, he will send me an essay on Pound’s final canto, concluding that there’s “a sense that Pound didn’t err at all, rather that people seem to get the project wrong.” Your hands close around it.

Shaelyn Smith grew up in northern Michigan and now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she currently serves as the nonfiction editor for the Black Warrior Review. Her work can be found in storySouth, The Rumpus, Sonora Review and Forklift, Ohio.

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