Monday, April 23, 2018

Breaking the Rules in Utah

In my quarterly Breaking the Rules column, I usually ask writers about their nonfiction. Even if authors write in multiple genres, this is Essay Daily. And nonfiction is where all the rules are broken. I love creative nonfiction because of its dumb title which is oxymoronic and requires definition and then counter definition. The joke, where is the creative nonpoetry is always a good answer to the question of what is ‘creative nonfiction.’ But we don’t need nonpoetry because free verse broke the rules completely and now poetry has no rules except that it should a la Emily Dickinson blow the top of your head off and Denise Levertov’s exultation that defines line as a breath.

I recently visited the University of Utah’s MFA and PhD creative writing program where I read manuscripts by some blow-the-top-of-the-head off poets. Emily Dyer Barker’s fertility, surgical, counting poems, Alleliah Nuguid’s floral lyrics, Jackie Balderrama’s nature crisis, water-touching poems, Michelle Macfarlane, mother-death-blue poems, Liza Flum’s, word inverting, culturally investigative, guy poems, and Cori Winrock’s stitchy, webby, hybrid poems were the kind of poems that reminded me why I loved poetry As I read their manuscripts, and read them again, I pulled connections between and through the poems like hand-pulled noodles, pulling it again. Poetry is the substance it is made of. You don’t need the phrase non-poetry. Poetry Poetry will do.
     The U has great teachers who write nonfiction. Paisley Rekdal and Katharine Coles have books on nonfiction out or coming out. While I was there, Gretchen Henderson was teaching the nonfiction course as a visiting professor. But there aren't as many nonfiction students. So the manuscripts I received were primarily poetry and fiction. What I loved about the work I read was the way the fiction people had been infused with poetry. Their fiction broke the fiction rules in the way free verse broke the poetry rules. “Regular” fiction rules include such strict business as character development, a Freytag’s Triangle of rising action, climax, and dénouement. You’re supposed to have plot, damnit. And these fiction authors I read subverted some of that. Rachel Levy introduces the same characters multiple times. Each time, it’s as if it’s the first. Jace Brittain’s Sorcererer protagonist, Felix, suffers from the consumption. We don’t know exactly in what time period or what country he suffers, but we do know Felix’s expelled phlegm falls in love with a slug, or at least falls in like. Rachel Zavecz’s Briar TM retells the story of Sleeping Beauty through the lens and spectacle of a Kardashian. The one nonfiction manuscript I read, by Noam Dorr, made it clear that nonfiction is the place where genre definitions go to get broken. His essay incorporates an online dating questionnaire, an interior monologue, a quasi narrative about a soldier/operative/spy in the middle of a war in the sense that world now is always at war.
     I asked the prose writers some questions about their prose because I found it surprising and discombobulating and top of the head off blowing. Jace Brittain answered my questions about breaking the rules and his Sorcererer book which he named Sorcererer not only because his main character, Felix, is a sorcerer and is the source, but because it is fun to type erererererer. Which it is.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

JB: I wasn’t necessarily trying to resist narrative, rather trying to think through tendencies to narrativize. From my earliest drafts, Felix’s mind and voice have been precariously associative, and with each thought that slips away in the vehicle of its metaphor, the web of associations gets dense and denser. Something dreamily similar to narrative comes alive as the reader counts the recursions. Though, of course, orderly progression is out the window here. And I think something lyric comes out of the resistance to ordering the narrative activities. There’s an instability to any single image, and my own impulse as a reader is usually to make sense of all the sensory noise and nonsense bubbling under any image or word. 

NW We also learn a lot about snails. I will never think the same about the stuff we expectorate from our lungs and how much that expectorant is like snails/slugs. What is the metaphor you're working on here ?

And we’re in luck (or maybe in denial) because I think that speaks to how metaphors are working in SORCERERERER. There’s a kind of blurry line between vehicle and tenor, and it is a two-way street. Each carries the potential of the other in its buzzing little molecules. Felix is a snail, and he isn’t. His spittle and sputum are always in the process of becoming slugs, accruing those traits—and vice versa [purposeful non-period here]

NW: In Sorcererererer, we are introduced to Felix, a man suffering from the consumption in a unspecified time and place--why leave those two elements unspecified? 

JB: And yes, time is fuzzy in this one, but there is at least one specified place (perhaps a small concession toward clarity!): an old sanatorium in Elysian Park / Echo Park in Los Angeles. And that specificity is there as part of a critique running as a more directed stream under the piece against the paranoid instability of historical narrativizing, of the heliotropic myth and the west/rest cures and westward marches and of being entrenched in bogus destinies [purposeful non-period here]
     If you’re in the area with a little free time, those old grounds presently include an active respiratory hospital abutting a few scenic paths up in the hills above Dodgers Stadium—take a stroll and put your newly slimy associative mind to the test. [purposeful period here]

I asked Rachel Zavecz about BriarTM and how the Queen is a King is a Ringmaster. The Ringmaster makes a lot of money off the sex tape.

NW: In Briar, you use a lot of allusions to create an atmosphere for your reader--brand names, the allusion but not description of a sex tape, a king who is not really a king. How does allusion substitute for scene in your book? 

RZ: I am interested in a proliferation of allusion so far as it is suggestive of a continual piling up of interrelating images, concepts, and nodes of meaning. It is the exploration of an aesthetics of trash wherein pieces constantly shift and provide new context for others, where the suggestion of more and excess creates a sense of interlocking infiniteness. The scene is simultaneously exploded inward and outward where it can have no internal or external markers of boundary. The autonomous movement of expanding objects, people, and ideas as they slide against one another creates a permeable membrane of text that resembles the digital heartbeat of a dark net. What is a brand but an allusion to the exchange of social capital, and eventually the autonomous movement of the brand-symbol itself?

NW: As we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

RZ: I think that this question is closely related to the previous in that it lends support to a particular conception of aesthetics and an understanding of movement through the contemporary world of spectacle and commodity. In many ways the “narrative” of BriarTM exists in the same way that the exhibition space exists. J.G. Ballard’s conception of modern human life as an atrocity exhibition to which we are all ourselves spectators rings very true to me in my conception of this piece’s narrative intent (or lack thereof). The reader moves through complex language and sensory overload in an attempt to find meaning just as we move through the hyperreality of a saturated world. In a society of overload, what is time and what does it mean to exist within a particular space? As language textures itself, overlaps, explodes, and coils into a glittering representation of excess, the mind also moves, in an attempt to conceive of its own machinations and perception.

NW: I love how you're updating the original, incredibly dark story of Briar Rose. How does your retelling of the story act as a referendum on contemporary storytelling? 

RZ: I have always been drawn to fairy tales and their continuing engagement with storytelling through time. In her essay regarding the form of the fairy tale, Kate Bernheimer refers to fairy tale characters as  “silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there,” and possessed of a flatness that allows for depth of response. However, I think that in a culture where meaning over-proliferates, being a silhouette has become a multi-dimensional occupation. The fairy tale reflects, but also refracts. There are so many shards of the mirror attempting reflection simultaneously that the reader comes dangerously close to facing a reality of selfhood previously obfuscated during the supposed mirror-stage of their own development. Jean Baudrillard describes the death of the mirror as abstraction: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” In other words, there are more holograms performing at this halftime show than there are members of the audience.
     Consider: the fairy tale as a perfect and eternal vessel for an aesthetics of continuing meaning-making, overload, illegibility, garbage, reality that is no longer tethered to reality. Storytelling that consumes us until we find ourselves simultaneously moved by putrescence and beauty. Horror and delight. Repulsion and temptation. No longer in control of our own conception or experience of supposed difference. This feels to me like a true representation of what contemporary storytelling can be.

Noam Dorr's nonfiction blew the top of my head off. See how:

NW: In your essay, you thread together three modes--dating questionnaire, military/spy narrative, and lyrical interior thoughts. How do you balance those three modes and what do you hope to gain from pressing three separate threads together?

ND: That essay is an exploration of the relationship between surveillance and desire—the tension that results from a desire to form an intimacy with the person who is being watched, but having to constantly maintain a distance from them. When I wrote the first draft of this essay it was just a fragmented narrative of my experience as an intelligence analyst during my compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. And while I found ways to create a narrative tension there, it just didn’t work—partially because I kept having to omit details (since they were classified), but mostly because I personally just didn’t find that narrative interesting to tell.
Some time later, as a result of a fairly dramatic shift in a long-term relationship, I joined OKCupid. As I was filling out the dating website’s matchmaking questions I kept finding myself rebelling against the limited logic of the multiple choice options. My essayistic tendencies wouldn’t let me respond to a question about say, whether I believe in love-at-first-sight with “yes” or “no” and that’s it. But I had to answer in order to increase my chances of finding a good match! Fortunately OKCupid gives you an out—you can add an explanation to your choice. So then each question became an opportunity to write a mini-essay, a kind of acknowledgement of the performance all of us love-searchers are a part of inside this machine. There were very concrete connections between the surveillance I had been involved with in tracking these intelligence targets and the one I was willingly submitting to in order to find romantic connections—each a form of intimacy with complete strangers. Eventually a lyric voice emerged, one that rebelled against the impersonality of the questions, their inability to capture what it’s actually like to be a feeling human being with embodied desires. An interior voice, it was trying to describe what we don’t see reflected in those dating questions, or in military surveillance—though that voice too is a kind of performance.
     Surveillance and desire are all around us, but each thread on its own would only get at part of that gesture and part of the complications that come up when algorithms become entwined with warfare or erotic love. To make the presence of that already existing tension known I had to bring the three strands together. Ostensibly there is nothing really sexy about tracking a hostile government as it attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, or listening to two people planning a suicide bombing, and yet that mode of searching (and sometimes finding) is all about desire—an increased attention, a looking. Then there’s the act of self-surveillance—what happens when we subject ourselves to an algorithm by answering revealing online dating questionnaires. Here we want to be watched and noticed and the more answers we provide, the higher the likelihood (so says the website) that we will be found by someone desiring us. The lyric self is also caught in that web of surveillance and desire—witnessing the end of an exclusive romantic partnership and the kind of excitement and anguish of seeing a former lover with other lovers—which is also full of desire, but of a very confusing variety (if I can imagine my lover with other lovers I can also imagine myself with other lovers, and yet, I am not part of this lovership).
     The stakes may seem disproportional: the intelligence work has, or so I was told, saved and ended lives; how can this possibly compare to online dating? But in a lot of ways if we dig deep down the impulse behind both is the same. Soldiers who served with me are now rising stars in high tech giants—they bring the knowledge they developed in the military to civilian applications. I’m not saying the Israeli Intelligence community is behind OKCupid’s matchmaking software (that would be a whole other level matchmaker-matchmaker-make-me-a-match), but the same operating logic is there.

NW: You attend a program that doesn't really have a nonfiction track--how have fiction and poetry courses influenced your nonfiction? 

ND: So first, I have to say that while there isn’t a dedicated nonfiction track, there are faculty members here who have published nonfiction—my advisor, Paisley Rekdal has written books of both poetry and essays and I’ve learned so much from her and her work. And I’ve found the fiction workshops here to be completely open and experimental; no matter what I brought them—an essay written on slivers of paper hidden inside a hollow orange, or an essay that was also a functioning pinhole camera—they were always ready to talk about the work on its own terms.
     But in many ways some of my most formative learning experiences here have been through the poetry side. I hope that one day I can actually write poems as good as those written by my classmates in the program, but in the meantime I’ve taken to stealing (or I should probably politely say, learning) as many of their skills as I can. What that has translated to is a merciless approach to my own language. Let’s face it—prose writers sometimes think that when they write a lyrical sentence or gesture towards abstract ideas they’re creating beautiful and poetic language. But the poets I worked with just wouldn’t let me get away with it. One person I work with a lot here, Cori A. Winrock, would press and press on my work until I got the writing to do what it needed. And as a result, when I got to that point I knew every single word counted. (I’m getting back at her by having convinced her to write essays.)
     I feel like the skills of a poet are crucial for any writer, but especially for an essayist—stacking images, the power of the line as a unit, being aware of syntactical juxtapositions, creating friction not just through content or narrative but through sound and lyric—all of these have been formative for my current work.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the essay moves by means other than strict narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

ND: I think that what the essay gains from the lyric is the anti-story. There is a kind of tyranny of narrative when we experience stories, an insistence of authority: X happened, then Y happened, and as a result Z happened. When I was serving as an intelligence analyst a huge part of the work was the piecing together of fragmented bits of information to create a story: we’re trying to figure out what is happening (for example, a bombing is planned at this place at this time) in order to prevent it from happening. But this endless quest for narrative severely limits the experience of language—we start to see only what we want to see to fit into the story we expect to hear. Not that the intelligence reports were fabrications or fictions (they would be useless if that were the case), but the longer I served the more I saw them as a tragic sadness—all of these resources (people, money, equipment) dedicated to capturing and interpreting other people’s communication (without their consent), and only interested in the part of it that conforms to narrative, and ideally narrative that tells the story we are looking for.
     Narrative is important for orientation in an essay, so the reader doesn’t become lost, but narrative will also create the illusion for the reader that they truly know what’s going on. Lyric is a challenge to narrative’s certainty of itself, a space for a different kind of authority, a voice that rejects the domination of stories. Essays as a mode work as the mind works, and so this rejection is crucial for the form. Storytelling is only one way our mind moves with language, what about all of the others?
     There is also a moral complexity here—I don’t know the consequences of the information I was in charge of forwarding. It is highly likely that some people lost their lives and some lives were saved, but that was a moral implication enabled by narrative. Lyric wouldn’t do that. If I wrote poems instead of reports and handed them to my superior officers the machine of the military would have broken down (also, I would have been court-martialed). Narratives by themselves are too easy to fall into. Resisting narrative to me was also resisting a whole set of militaristic narratives, of the logic of national conflict. I could have given an alternative story to counter the official rhetoric. But I don’t want a competing version, I want to question the very nature of the competition, and I think we need lyric as that act of resistance.

NW: Your book is coming out next spring? from Sarabande. Sarabande publishes some of the most innovative nonfiction out there. Who's work from Sarabande do you feel most aligns with your work? 

ND: Such a difficult question! Sarabande has published so many incredible essayists and the press has done so much for boundary-pushing non-fiction that it’s hard to choose. But I can say that the Sarabande books I most often returned to while working on my own manuscript were The Book of Beginnings and Endings by Jenny Boully and Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay by T. Fleischmann. Both of these texts in their own way took on difficult forms, and I would often go to them to think through what happens when we challenge the conventional forms of writing—not for the sake of being challenging, but for opening our horizons of possibility. Also, Elena Passarello’s books were a great inspiration for a reinvigoration with obsession and how to sustain that obsession and curiosity over the course of an entire text. And I have to mention my friend and teacher Ander Monson (it’s true his books of essays are published elsewhere, but technically he is a Sarabande author!)—I have a super-deluxe edition of his book Letter to a Future Lover, which comes in a box with all of the essays printed on these beautifully printed loose cards, in random order, ready to be stashed in unsuspecting library books, and I found myself frequently opening it to re-remember how formal constraints can actually free us up to write.

Rachel's Levy's book and dissertation called All Fur might end some pretty spectacular deaths of some big named literary theorists. Who are already dead: 

NW: In All Fur, we are introduced to Wendy Wanda and Greg? You return to the conversation between them several times, offering several adaptations of their interaction. What do you hope to gain from repeating this move and how does it set us up for the end of the book when we will see literary theorists (except Foucault) stabbed from all sides? 

RL: In part, my project attempts to produce an unfaithful rewrite of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s iconic masochistic novella, Venus in Furs, and to parody literary masochism more generally. 

In Venus in Furs, an unnamed but well-to-do narrator visits the lavish estate of his eccentric friend, Severin, for an afternoon of snacks, cigars, art appreciation, domestic violence, and literary conversation. It’s a very classy visit. The narrator and Severin talk about their shared obsession: the elusive figure of the Cruel Woman! They’ve caught glimpse of this icy temptress in their dreams, their fantasies, and their favorite artistic works by wealthy straight men of European descent. Severin confesses that once upon a time he went so far as to try to bring the obsessive fantasy to life. And guess what? He’s just finished drafting his first novel, which details the entire harrowing experience! Want to read it? It’s still really rough, but I’d love to hear your thoughts! No! I don’t want to read it. Unfortunately, my desire is ignored, and Severin’s hackneyed account of the-time-he-played master-and-servant eclipses the greater portion of Masoch’s novella. Severin’s experiment ends, as one might expect, in tears. He’s whipped by a dude (which makes him angry) and dumped by the icy temptress (which makes him sad + angry) but, as Friedrich Nietzsche says, what doesn’t kill you births a more virulent strain of your kind, and so Severin gets over his embarrassment, inherits his daddy’s estate, and becomes an active participant in the Men’s Rights Movement. He also acquires a silk-clad thingy to keep around the house as his very own… wife? servant? prisoner? Her status is unclear. But she fixes Severin and the narrator tasty snacks! Severin verbally abuses her when he finds the eggs aren’t cooked to his liking, and then he threatens her with extreme physical violence until she flees the parlor like a freaked animal. After that, Severin and the narrator continue their conversation about women, elite masculinity, friendship, and art. 
     Some people choose to read Venus in Furs as a transgressive novella because it features a member of the ruling class who’s also an aspiring novelist with an impossible desire for absolute submission. Others read it as subversive novella because it features a member of the economic elite who’s also an aspiring novelist with a paradoxical desire to end capitalism. (My personal opinion differs. I don’t think those who win at capitalism desire capitalism’s demise—but keep in mind that I have an incredibly small imagination.) Others still say Venus in Furs gives queerness a whole new meaning. The meaning? Heterosexuality + whips! Obviously I’m intentionally reducing the discourse but that’s just because it’s such a thrilling thing to do. I can’t stop myself. I’m dumb.
     In real life, I’m perfectly capable (under the threat of extreme physical violence) to appreciate the complexity and genius of Literary Masochism. At its most beautiful, Masochistic Lit is like the patriarchy’s best try at camping itself (if such a thing were possible), and sometimes it can be really fun and a little bit moving. But in writing my book, I am interested in making a fool of literature, especially the kind of literature that thinks of itself as always-already transgressive. Because if you trap Venus in Furs in your hands and hold it up to the light just so it really does resemble something so sadly normal it’s practically hegemonic. Which makes me laugh/come. What is Venus in Furs? An exclusive conversation between bro-friends that spans the distance of space, time, history, the entirety of the Western canon, and several complicated layers of narrative diegesis. Isn’t it just the project of literature screaming at its most annoying-anxious pitch?     
So I want to trap it for a while and make it sing itself silly. And this involves trapping all the theories/theorists that valorize literary masochism as some limit-point of transgression and subversion (except Foucault! he’s my baby, my comrade). It’s all in good fun (as is literary masochism itself, presumably). The conversations that I stage in my book between Greg and Wanda are a method for voicing this silly singing. In Masoch’s text, “Greg” is aristocratic Severin’s self-selected “slave name”—what? Anyways, Masoch has Greg and Wanda meet repeatedly to enact their tableaus of domination + submission = subversion. Okay. But in my book, the relationship between Greg and Wanda is blistered. Wanda is audience to Greg’s self-obsession, which is also his obsession with the literature of transgression. Greg is just so obsessed with his beloved literary fathers, brothers, and buds that he can’t stop talking about them. He’s talking about them, but he’s talking at Wanda. And for some reason this gives him pleasure. But the entire situation causes Wanda to become increasingly agitated. It’s like she exists only to witness Greg’s pleasure and to affirm its transgressive shimmer. Greg’s incessant theorizing and grotesque obsession with disobeying (who?) and transgressing (what?) irritate both Wanda and the narrator (who is a sadist-lesbian, truth be told) to incredible heights. After a while, they become so IRRITATED that they need to shut Greg up! By any means necessary!!! So, the narrator and Wanda join forces. They hatch a plan. They start executing the beloved figures from Greg’s canon. The first to go are Don Quixote and his annoying skinny horse.

NW:  There is a lot of mansplaining in your manuscript. It's very effective and very funny but does it also allow your narrator to mansplain a bit through Greg? 

RL: I think the project does connect to the phenomenon of mansplaining. Greg is definitely a mansplainer but he doesn’t have full control of his body. I’m using his body and bending its pipes to make it squeak out horrible things. And I think this breathes new life into mansplaining, while simultaneously depriving mansplaining of oxygen. Which is sexy, sort of? It’s been fun for me.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

RL: The book is less of a narrative than it is a lyric-patchwork. There’s this Grimm tale called “All Fur” where a daughter forces her daddy to commission the construction of a suit that’s made from the fur of every living thing in the kingdom. The resulting garment is a patchwork affair, very grotesque, with some blood (and probably some shit, too) flecked on it. I think this garment might be an interesting structural model for a book. Like what if a book could be a suit made out of all the hides that belong to the brothers and fathers and friends who comprise the kingdom of transgressive literature? So each chapter in my book is harvested from the body of a different “species,” so to speak. Together the species form a kingdom and a loving community. One of the chapters slips into the demonic skin of Jacques Lacan, and parodies his seminars on Love, Stupidity, and Feminine Sexuality. Other chapters obsessively rewrite the encounter between Greg and Wanda, trying to break the masochistic machine. And others still explore the soft and furry discursive hide called: “pedagogy.” It’s still a work in progress, and I’m trying to embed more narrative into the structure for sure. But, right now, the organizational principle is a lyric-patchwork garment made from the skin of the fathers and brothers of literature. The skin is ethically harvested, rest assured. On the whole, it’s a very ethical project.


Listen: Noam's book is coming out next year. I believe that Rachel and Jace and Rachel's work will find its way into the world soon.  So will the poets'. I know I'm prejudiced toward Utah but I loved anew the wild blowing the top of the head that happens in this place that people don't naturally associate with mind-blowing wildness. 

P.S. Cori Winrock just won the Alice James Prize, reaffirming the poetry area's ability to blow the top of peoples' heads off across the land. 

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