Thursday, March 25, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
As the preceding post obliquely suggests, lately I've come to feel my perennial crisis of writing—doubts about what to write, how to write, whom to write for—has crossed over into a crisis of reading. That is, do I write to be read? Or do I myself even want to read at all? Yes, of course I read, constantly, habitually, compulsorily—blogs and books, status updates and student essays, thumb endlessly through literary magazines or the shelves at Barnes & Noble looking for something, I know not what, except something to go on with/for/about. But one of the aftershocks of the literary festival has been new thinking about the literary object as conceptual sobject (subject/object): not something to be read but something to be sited/sighted, like a piece of visual art or a performance, unconsumed if not unconsumable (no object, textual or otherwise, resists commodification). And I realize on the one hand that conceptual writing functions for me, as fatigued reader, like Wittgenstein's philosophy, showing the fly out of the fly bottle. And on the other hand that taking that step is antithetical to all my training and habits and desires.
Some of this thinking has been spurred by a paper that Vanessa Place has shared with me—something she presented as respondent to a recent conference on the poet-critic—on the poetics of radical evil or apoetics (not to be confused with the Charles Bernstein book of that title). Coupled with this is the equation of radical evil with radical mimesis ("Radical mimesis is original sin"). Gertrude Stein is the starting point for such a poetics: a rose is a rose is a rose, but it cannot be read, only encountered. I don't want to quote from an unpublished paper, but there's a similar point made in Notes on Conceptualisms, when Place & Fitterman inscribe the continuum of pure conceptualism versus impure conceptualism/the baroque, both of which can be construed as attacks on reading. In pure conceptualism, "one does not need to 'read' the work as much as think about the idea of the work," and of course a text such as Goldsmith's Traffic is almost literally unreadable. The baroque's "excessive textual properties" do not produce, strictly speaking, an unreadable text, but they do "defeat" reading ("these are strategies of failure")—at least, we can presume, "readerly" reading.
It's hard now for me to pick up any book or magazine and not, having read a fragment of it, put the book back down, having thoroughly encountered it as an object, with my need to "read" it muted or extinguished. It's always already rereading. Is this a sort of mental decadence? Or a desire to push through, to let go of, my own old ideas of mastery—the godlike Author I've secretly hoped to become, a desire that has not vanished with my belief in such Author-ity.
Put another way, why write if not for Master(y)? If not for the Big Other? I stand in Lacan's shoes, in Place's shoes, looking out at the audience deadpan. What do you want of me.
More and more I realize that my project—in the novel, but not just in the novel—is to tell a story but also to look at story. The fundamental starting point of Miramare was the thought, What can a novel do that a film can't do better? If the answer is, Nothing, then a novel might at least be the proper means for examining that infrathin difference between a mode of narrative that depends on looking and a mode of narrative that depends on listening. That margin, that infinitely narrow gulf, is to be encountered.
I write for myself and for strangers.
More and more fascinated with the image of writing, the image of reading. The resistance of both modes, a nearly unique resistance, to filmic representation. Even sleep is more interesting to the camera—provides more potential access to the Real. What can we do with the image of a writer, a reader? Nothing that we can('t) do to the poem or story s/he reads/writes.
My title comes from a Liz Waldner poem, as quoted in a review of her latest book over at the Constant Critic:
Is the slave
Of the visible;
Is shackled by
When at night
Your eyelids fall—
You must believe me—
The book beside
Your pillow sighs,
There's a pathos there: the (s)objects of the world exhale with relief when no longer subject to our scrutiny. But also a crucial reminder that seeing is prior to reading.
What's beyond reading?
Or to put it another way, What does the reader dream about?
I want to look at that.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Progeny of Air, Kwame Dawes. Peepal Tree Press, 1994, reprinted 2003. Price in pounds. Matte cover, predominant color note: blue. The book is small though not pocket sized unless you've got giant pockets. Maybe 7 by 4 inches and a third of an inch thick. Top of each page slightly darker than the rest, ring-around-the-collar style. A slightly ragged serif typeface, clearly computer rendered, squished in spots. The ink has a slightly ghosted, unsaturated quality. Pages of average thickness, rough grain. Back cover author photo shows a tight black-and-white but really blue-and-white closeup: glasses, facial hair, lips parted, hands at cheeks, looking down as though reading. What is this book doing here?
Mean Free Path, Ben Lerner's latest. Big, glossy blue, shows handling. Inside white space luxuriates around a clear hard serif typeface. 66 official pages and some extras. A comment card, TGIFridays-style falls out on the cafe table. A sort of bookmark. Smooth pages with a faint taupe coloring, deceptively impervious. No author photo but six emblems appear on the next to last page: Amazon.com, The Point, Golden Lasso, Lannan, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington State Arts Commission. And Copper Canyon's own logo in the upper left corner followed by their explanation: "The Chinese character for poetry is made up of two parts: 'word' and 'temple." If it's accurate to read left to right the "word" looks like a lowercase "i"; the temple is a man in a hat, possibly drunk, gesturing obscenely at the "i."
Where's the Moon, There's the Moon, a hardback by Dan Chiasson. Glossy black dust jacket, wider than a novel but no taller, much thinner. The actual cover's paper, green with blue spine and the Borzoi Books imprint a literal imprint, communicative to the fingertip. The relative whiteness of the page seems identical to Lerner but now I am starting to see or imagine a faint brownness to the top of each page of every book I look at. The typeface is large and clear. The author in the photo on the right inside jacket flap has trees behind him and confronts the camera frankly, handsomely, with wavy hair slightly askew and an open-necked polo shirt, enough of the right arm visible to guess that it's hooked at his hip, Whitman style. Near the bottom of the page the borzoi returns, abstracted to the point of flight: a green gull with a tail.
Shoulder Season, Ange Mlinko, Coffee House Press. A frenetic painting or painted collage gleams under the cover's gloss; an indigo stripe discreetly marks its territory at the very top. Typeface startlingly large, making the poems easily available one imagines to the elderly and eyestrained. Poem titles all caps in a typeface made to resemble a stencil; somehow more Caribbean-looking than Dawes' book. Paper really isn't white, is it? The typeface is Erhardt, designed by a Hungarian; Mlinko too is Hungarian; I am a half of a Hungarian Jew, which is immaterial. Three logos on the last page: National Endowment for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, Target.
The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929 - 1940. Cambridge UP. Massive gray hardcover with pastel black and white image of the artist as a young man, lettering white and pastel blue. More blue on the back; this cover shows wear already. The physical hardcover is black and satisfying textured and pointillist to the touch with gold lettering on the broad muscular spine. Inside pages bright, slick, thin, feels somehow foreign. Distance from title page to first letter (address suitably to Joyce, dated 23/3/29 from Kassel, Germany): one quarter inch. Distance from conclusion of last letter ("Love to you both & to Tom. / Sam") to endpaper: one third inch. Heavy fucker. Type of the letters seems too big; type of the voluminous footnotes, too small.
Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. FSG's fish rendered cartoonishly by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, along with the rest of the cover, which is mustard yellow, matte, easy to grip in one hand. Thin coarse pages, indifferent print job indicates the disposability of this book, inversely proprotionate to the sales it is likely to generate. Covered with cartoons of Chaz's trademark worried-looking neurotic New Yorkers, some of which are reimagined as Russians. Nobody looks Turkish but what does Turkish look like? Author photo on first page, cropped black hair, looking down and away from camera to show off her profile, her sexy blade of a nose. The pages already have a slightly wavy quality to them: they will absorb moisture easily. Nowhere close to white.
Maggie Nelson, Bluets, Wave Books. Deep blue with white flecks as befits the title, which I first misread as "blurts"; initial excitement at combination of inelegant name with elegant volume now faded. Handsomely printed on thick paper, feels tight in its spine, almost as high in quality as a Coach House book. Numbered blocks of prose discreetly bordered with whiteness. No photos of any kind. A mute flawless illegible object like the monolith in 2001, its cover may not be intended to be but nevertheless is representational of stars.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Say then that it is true that I play chess
to spend my life between two parts of a word
the son and the sens, the hesitation of a cleft
palate with orchids singing in the cracks.
The other poetic presence that hovers its wings over this book is Michael Palmer, who provides a blurb and seems a likely candidate for the book's chief interlocutor: a series of poems throughout it bear the title "Letters to Michael." Much of Palmer, too, comes out of Stevens, though he's a Stevens for whom imagination owes an unpayable debt to reality, rather than the other way around. There's a similar ethical rigor on display in McMorris' book, along with a dazzling range of classical references that heighten the Classic feeling of the poetry itself—another quality I associate with Palmer and with the late, "philosophical," Apollonian Stevens.
The imagery is light-filled, of an Attic grace, but stained by more recent, New World history—of Jamaica and the Caribbean, and of this decade's wars. An untitled poem in the book's first section, "The Mirror Says," is one of the most powerful and moving poems on war and the civilian-poet's stance toward that war that I've ever read. But the speaker of the next poem imagines himself a soldier, who is ambivalently involved in the work of empire. A postcolonial poet like McMorris must surely be more skeptical of utopia than the next poet—after all, he's from there, an island permanently marked by lethal nostalgia (Wikipedia tells me that Jamaica has three "counties," Cornwall, Middlesex, and Surrey, and that when Elizabeth Windsor says or does anything on behalf of her dominion she's to be referred to as the Queen of Jamaica).
But McMorris is up to something more complex than critique of empire. It's not so easy, after all, for any poet to ban utopia from his lexicon. And so one of the book's sections, and one of its longer poems, is titled "Auditions for Utopia," and in one part riffs off of the fantasies elaborated by Gonzalo in Act II of The Tempest (a central reference point for any Anglo-Caribbean writer). "The thing about utopia is that you can't / decide to live there, and if you're there, / you're still on the other side of a barrier" (55). This follows a description of a spontaneous dance by a young boy, which seems to me another Stevens allusion, this time to "The Idea of Order at Key West." Whereas the singer in the Stevens poem enacts the poet-utopian's "rage for order," her song "arranging, deepening, enchanting night," the dancer is deliberately separated from the poet—as much, one suspects, by the poet's education and his condition as visiting exile as by the boy's refusal of "order":
The boy was content to dance himselfThis book is aware of a possible relationship between the utopian yearnings of poetry and those of George W. Bush, and that both forms of utopianism have the power to do harm. "The mind is an emperor. Or the mind is subject / to decree from obscure parliaments of language" (50). Whence legitimacy then? Those "obscure parliaments" are surely a nod to Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators," but one might as well say "unelected." Stevens told us that the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream, King Death, finale of seem. Like Derek Walcott, McMorris has had "a sound colonial education"—that's from Walcott's great early poem "The Schooner Flight"), but unlike Walcott, McMorris doesn't confidently declare that "either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." Poetry itself is as much or more McMorris' subject as politics, and he makes the reader aware of that on a formal level, compiling rich and strange abstractions with lines like "orchid in the hair of the wave," "Plethora of polis miasma," and by a characteristic trick of enjambment that there ought to be a name for. I'm speaking of lines that break the syntax radically at the end of an enjambed line, even as other lines function more normatively, with enjambment a hiccup rather than an encounter with the void. Here's an example:
bizarre and unreachable, as he seemed
to us, almost invisible, in touch
with secret chords and the generations.
He did not have a name. The dance
passed through the slash of the waves
to become a visible present tense
wholly of action in that small frame. (56)
Like touching a girl you've been in love with
forever, and having her touch you back
the mind-body problem succumbed to delirium. (28)
Sometimes he capitalizes the beginning of the line following the enjambment but just as often, as here, he doesn't—it's as though a bit of ghost punctuation floats between "back" and "the mind-body problem" (an em-dash, maybe). It's hyper-enjambment, a double insistence on the integrity of the line, that functions as a kind of tribute to what can seem an almost untimely faith in poetry, and in eloquence. I've chosen the next passage almost at random to demonstrate McMorris' capacity for sheerly beautiful writing:
The tongue imitates the leaf. It falls
like rain over the garden, like a wound
of wings beating sunlight, or a swan
climbing to the sky's blue pages, to write
an elegy for withered things, falling
like nothing to blossoms, porous to sunlight.
("Gadji Beri Bimba," 67)Writing like this is so luminous—or dazzling, pellucid, shimmering, stunning, choose your own back-of-the-book cliché—that it's almost a parody of itself. McMorris tries to salvage the merely beautiful by putting it in tension with other forces: in many of the poems that means politics, but in this case, the title of the poem comes from Hugo Ball and one of its epigraphs comes from Baudelaire, so that the Apollonian register McMorris seems most at home in is contextualized with the Dionysian spirts of dada and the poete maudit. The poem touches ground again in the political, where the nonsense syllables of Ball become the backdrop for the dance of Josephine Baker, and then is beautifully broken, twice, by visual collages of words traced with actual marks and lines, creating some much-needed friction with words like "lemon," "cathedral," "salt, "hiatus," "orchid," "flaneur," "syllable." Still: so beautiful! So pure! So irrelevant? Or is this beauty useful after all as beauty always has been, as a line of flight that curves us out from and back to a world of injustice and terror?
McMorris enters more territory more congenial to our cynical age with a sequence of sonnet-like poems that again collides the poet's utopia (this time, the utopia of Modernism) with the realities of colonial life: "Little Dog with Bananas." That's Gertrude Stein's dog, of course: "I am I because my little dog knows me." But the speaker of these poems turns that around, beginning each poem in the sequence with, "In fact, the little dog knows me not at all." The speaker of this poem (which is the only poem in a section titled "Collage") remains conscious, in spite of his obvious mastery of the scope and depth of European modernism (Apollinaire is another presiding spirit), of his otherness to the Modernist project: an African face is an instrument and not a subject to the likes of Stein and Picasso.
If your little dog doesn't know you, does that constitute a refusal of mastery, or just the inability to access it? And yet McMorris writes masterfully, is a master, a classicist at heart, a Modernist after all, if après le lettre; less sentimental than Derek Walcott and certainly less romantic, yet for all that a striver after the main chance, a Great Poet. And my heart leaps to discover him (this is the first book of his I've encountered), and yet I wonder if there isn't something fundamentally anachronistic about the whole project. And then I wonder if that anachronism, like all that useless beauty, isn't in fact the book's cunning, and its way of answering a desperate need harbored by the distracted and scattered readers of poetry.
* Any talk of orchids reminds me of this little exchange between General Sternwood and Philip Marlowe in the 1946 version of The Big Sleep: "Do you like orchids, Mr. Marlowe?" "Not particularly." "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption." The failed patriarch Sternwood rails against the excessive sexuality of his youngest daughter; Marlowe/Bogart is slower to commit himself, unable to resist the sexual excesses of meaning that flower between himself and Lauren Bacall—though for my money, the sexiest part of the film comes in a seeming digression, the abbreviated seduction of what IMBD names only as "Acme Book shop Proprietress" played by the astonishingly gorgeous Dorothy Malone, last seen on screen as a buddy of Sharon Stone's in Basic Instinct.) What's this got to do with McMorris? Only, I think, that the orchid, that excessive flower, that petit objet a, represents something like McMorris' strike zone: the perfect pitch between sexy son and the conceptual burden of sens that he tries to steer his words between. In other words, that he might in spite of all his Apollonian and masterful tendencies be a writer of the baroque after all.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there's no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we're knee-deep in this one, you and me, we're practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl, we can go naked, I suppose, there's nothing to stop us and everything points in that direction, do you think there will be much music later and of what variety, we've that, at least, now that there's nothing left...
—Vanessa Place, from Dies: A Sentence
Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually.Conceptual narrative necessarily marked by digression, omission, despair, the ecstatic uprising of the sentence against the tyranny of paragraphs ("A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is," G. Stein), chapters, plot and character. Writing that does not find a readership but which inaugurates a thinkership. Is it correct, then, to speak of the pleasures of the conceptual text?
—Kenneth Goldsmith, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing"
Writing of any kind is a physical fact. The physicality is its most obvious and expressive content. Conceptual writing is made to engage the mind of the reader rather than her ear or emotions. The physicality of the work can become a contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Rhyme, meter, texture, and enjambment only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the reader in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device. The conceptual writer would want to ameliorate this emphasis on materiality as much as possible or to use it in a paradoxical way (to convert it into an idea). This kind of writing, then, should be stated with the greatest economy of means. Ideas may be stated with numbers or words or any way the author chooses, the form being unimportant.Place & Fitterman claim that conceptual writing is a mode of allegory. The baroque takes the age-old tension between mind and body, spirit and pleasure, as its formal principle, and thus becomes a double-voiced, heteroglossic tale that refuses to dissolve the physical pleasures of the ear and eye or the no-less-physical because fundamentally temporal pleasures of narrative for the sake of its idea, even as it insists on its concept and the possibility of a key to the text's mythologies. This already true in the history of "straight" allegory—look at how Redcrosse, the allegorical knight of "Holiness" in Book I of The Faerie Queene, completely and consistently behaves in all-too-human ways. After all, if he started out "Holy" and finished up that way, there'd be no story at all. Which is why Redcrosse's slaughter of the monstrous Errour takes place at the beginning of his tale, instead of ending it.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
The above is probably my favorite line to have so far emerged from the 2010 Lake Forest Literary Festival, which concludes today. It's the translation of a Hungarian tongue-twister featured in a story that Shelley Jackson read last night that was absolutely crammed with tongue-twisters in various languages in a bravura, hyperJoycean performance. It's been thrilling and a bit daunting to be confronted by such a high-powered group of experimental writers, each of whom pushes and punishes every boundary she encounters.
The festival officially began on Tuesday with a panel discussion moderated by me and featuring Jackson, Vanessa Place, Teresa Carmody, Lily Hoang, and our current Plonsker resident, Gretchen Henderson. I didn't know any of them except for Gretchen, and it's kind of a strange way to meet someone: to interrogate them, en masse, before a live audience. Here's my list of questions, not all of which I got to ask:
- What would you say is the essential difference between the kinds of writing you practice and mainstream literary fiction? Does it boil down to a particular technique, such as collage? A particular stance? Your relationship with your audience? Small versus big press publishing?
- What are the debts, if any, of this mode of writing to the art world?
- Vanessa: Please explain your objections to genre. Why is it inaccurate to call Dies: A Sentence or La Medusa "fiction"?
- If genre fiction emphasizes plot over character, and literary fiction is “character-driven,” what drives your writing?
- In a conversation between Lily and Molly Gaudry on Gaudry’s blog, the two of them discuss the artist as romantic figure—such notions as suffering for one’s art and so on. Is an experimental/hybrid stance toward writing inherently anti-romantic?
- How important is it for innovative writers to control the means of production, whether that means creating your own press (like Les Figues) or creating your own means of web production and distribution?
- What’s feminist about experimental fiction? Or to approach the question from a different angle: please talk about the relationship between your writing and the body.
- In a recent interview, Renee Gladman has said that she finds herself drawn to the sense of community that poets have, and that in her experience fiction writers don’t tend to organize themselves along communitarian lines. Has that also been your experience?
- Poets are used to the idea of not being able to live off their writing, but my sense is that fiction writers are less reconciled to the notion of the unmarketability of their wares. Can we talk about the relationship between your “day jobs” and your writing? Does it free a writer to not have to sell her work directly? Or is it another sort of limitation?
In her reading yesterday afternoon she achieved a coup de theatre by following up a very funny piece--an exhaustive catalog of names and nicknames for female genitalia--with the raw transcript of testimony from her work, a sad and sickening story told in the uninflected language of the law of an alleged rapist (Place's client, for whom "every woman was a 'bitch'") and his alleged victim, a prostitute who died of a drug overdose shortly after the apellant's preliminary hearing. Other conceptual projects that Place presented including her "whitewash" of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: her "reading" consisted of about five minutes of silence, concluded by the last words of the novel: "after all, tomorrow is another day." The overall project, as I understand it, erases every word of Mitchell's novel except for direct references to the black characters, most especially the word "nigger." I am braced and a little terrified by Place and her work: she seems utterly unadorned by sentiment, and completely radical in her pursuit of an ethics/aesthetics (she disputes the distinction) of mere presentation and the reader's self-implication. I am most naturally drawn to Dies, which is a 50,000-word sentence that all apparently takes place in the mind of a soldier during World War I: it's beautifully written and lushly printed (by Les Figues) and, probably for this reader, at a safer emotional distance than the work which engages so unflinchingly with the persistence of evil and the "not-okay" (a phrase that after Place takes on much darker inflections than those suggested by flarf's invocation of those words).
It's the sheer linguistic exuberance that will send me back to Jackson's writing (I am about a hundred pages in to her wonderful satirical novel Half Life, about an alternate reality in which Twofers--people with two heads--take on the allegorical and literal burden of queerness and difference, responding--as real queer people do--with "Pride." It's funny as hell). I will also be reading her hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, and perhaps putting it on the syllabus of a course on Frankenstein for first-year students that I'll be teaching this fall. But I was most inspired, oddly, by the list of authors that she said she was teaching this spring: Beckett, Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector among them. It reminded me that there is a doorway for me into this kind of narrative work, and that I don't have to feel "outside" of either fiction in general (which I too often do, thinking of it as poetry's Other) or of the coterie of experimental fiction.
Today at noon we'll hear from Vanessa Place once more, this time on a nonfiction book that she's publishing entitled The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and the Law which Random House is bringing out this month. At 4 PM Angela Jackson and S.L. Wisenberg (author of the appealingly titled memoir The Adventures of Cancer Bitch) will read, and the festival will conclude with Gretchen's performance of her Plonsker-award winning book, Gallerie de Difformité. If you're in Chicago, it's not too late to catch the train here.
Monday, March 01, 2010
In some ways this essay is my best answer to the implicit question "What does it mean to succeed as a writer?" that I grapple with below.
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