Thursday, December 24, 2009

Prose's Poetry

Winter break is here, and after turning in my grades, jaunting to New Jersey for most of a week so that my parents could spoil Sadie, and a bout of flu, it's Christmas Eve, which means this secular Jew has for the first time in a while a moment to look about him.

What's caught my attention is a terrific interview with Renee Gladman conducted by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that's the last thing to appear in the alphabetically-by-author edited latest issue of Denver Quarterly. Though a prose writer—now a fiction writer (a distinction I'll say more about below), Gladman identifies with poets and poetry, partly because of her early training in philosophy (there's not much of a tradition in this country of philosophically informed fiction; poetry of course is another story) and partly because poets are conscious of community (I wish to add an asterisk to that word, though, or at least to point the reader back to Lisa Robertson's salient commentary on the word's unfreedoms) in a way that fiction writers are not. As Gladman says, this is partly for reasons of cultural capital but also, and more intriguingly, because of the "form" (her scare quotes) of prose itself: "I find that [prose] texts differ so much from one author to another that the genre connecting them remains a bit of a mystery, which, in some ways, benefits the writing, keeps it from growing stale. But, in other ways, doesn't provide enough of a center to bring people together."

Gladman's been on my radar for a long time: for starters, we were classmates at Vassar. Though I don't remember ever meeting her or sharing a classroom with her, it's likely that this did occur at some point—it's a small school. She, along with Camille Guthrie and Duncan Dobbelman, are the only writers I know of who graduated from Vassar in the early Nineties who went on to pursue a broadly experimental or innovative approach to their work. The Vassar English Department, as I recall it, was a profoundly conservative (with a small-c) institution: the only time I ever heard the word "postmodernism" was in a class taught by a visiting instructor whose name I can't remember, and my poetry teacher there, Eamon Grennan, was and is a composer of pellucid first-person lyrics, whose spirit of negative capability is captured in the equivocal titles he favors for his books: What Light There Is, As If It Matters, etc. He was a wonderful teacher in many ways, a lover of Shakespeare, whose Irish accent guided me inside the language in a new way as he read poems by Lowell and Larkin and Berryman to us. But I still remember his critique of a sestina I wrote inspired by the Coen brothers film Miller's Crossing; it was not, I'm sure, a good poem, but what he focused on was its debt to pop culture, which ipso facto rendered it shallow. It's taken me many years to undo the damage of that, or at least to turn what I at first accepted as Parnassian prohibition into a useful skepticism about poetic prohibitions in general. So it goes with my undergraduate education in general: though I'll always be grateful for the solid and broad grounding in actual literature that I received there, it was and to some small extent remains an obstacle to my encountering of the contemporary, the real-time.

Gladman majored in philosophy at Vassar and that, perhaps, has made all the difference. As a gay black woman she was troubled, to say the least, by the absence of an inscription point for her subjectivity in the history of Western philosophy, but it must have given her mind some rigorous exercise nevertheless, and then as she says she discovered that poetry could give her that point of inscription. Or as she says, "I was most interested in experience—how you obtain it, how you 'capture' it—but what led me to poetry rather than fiction, where experience is captured all the time, was a need to slow the whole thing down, to draw out the moments of experience, expose the gaps." I think this gets at some of what I was trying to express in my admittedly jejune griping about fiction this past spring (it should be obvious now that this griping was really a way for me to psychologically clear the decks for my own return to fiction). That is, fiction "captures" experience in part by hurrying it along, by encoding it in forms (characters, plot, descriptions, dialogue) that take their interest from their motion rather than immersion. Becoming versus being. "I started looking intensely at the mundane," Gladman says, because the mundane is where doing gets closest to being—experience qua experience which must always remain uncaptured. "Drinking apple juice. Eating soup."

(I am also reminded at this point by another interview in PEN American between Richard Ford and a young writer of short fiction named Nam Le. I looked at his book of stories, The Boat, and I wasn't particularly impressed, but I did enjoy this moment of heresy in the interview: "Yesterday I was thinking out loud and said that maybe the problem with fiction is human beings, characters. We funnel everything through characters. And when you're dealing with something that involves mass influence and forces that have come about because humans have joined in unpredictable—or predictable—ways, then it seems like the worst kind of bad faith to think you can allegorize that into a simple human story. But if you diffuse that into many human stories than you diffuse the narrative. Why is it that every single apprehension of some great historical incident or atrocity has to come through the story of this guy or that guy, or this woman who was there, and maybe fell in love with that other person?" It's a wonderful and necessary question, but the closest he and Ford come to answering it is with the idea that "a story between this person and that person is the ambassadorial story for their time and place in history." Which is a good defense of character-based realistic fiction but at the same time nakedly reveals the complete absence in such fiction of anything an intelligent person can call "realism." Anyway.)

As I mentioned above, Gladman makes an interesting distinction between the kind of hybrid prose she's published thus far—the "prose block" is how she and Wilkinson describe the form—and fiction, because as far as she's concerned none of her fiction has been published yet. (That will change with the publication of her novella Event Factory, the first in a trilogy to be brought out by the mysterious "Dorothy, a publishing project"—if they have a web presence I haven't discovered it.) The books of Gladman's that I've read and enjoyed, Juice and The Activist, definitely play with narrative without quite leaving the grounds of what I'd call poetry. Part of what's attractive about them is their hybridity, which is captured in this notion of the prose block, which Gladman calls "the articulation of my personality, the body of my thinking. It captures a tone, a feeling toward language, that I have not been able to conjure in any other form.... A block of text is a moment of travel that captures a pattern of experience and holds it there. The white space says, 'Look at it!'" In other words, her hybrid writing imports some of that tension between the sentence and the line, fundamental to the functioning of poetry which calls a near-halt to becoming, into prose, primarily by organizing white space (there's a fair bit of parataxis to her writing as well, though nothing as disjunctive as a New Sentence). The logic of the line break becomes the white gulf around the block of prose, floating there on the page.

"In fact, what makes writing fiction interesting is this unshakeable desire to stay still, how that troubles the instinct of sentences to progress." It's a dialectic between stillness and movement that Gladman's hybrid prose enacts. And though presumably her new commitment to fiction-qua-fiction must mean coming to terms with "progress," she's still interested in thinking about the sentence in a way that, I rather suspect, doesn't occur to most fiction writers: "I am loosely interested in questions of event, character, and time as they encounter the experiment of the sentence. That is, the sentence that does not attempt to coalesce the problems of narrating experience in language but rather is invested in exploring the dynamics of these problems.... [W]ithout the awareness that as you're moving through language you must come to terms with the instinct of our parts of speech to write linearly with a clear destination, you're missing what's so intensely fascinating about the sentence and the relationship of self to it."

Gladman's idea of prose needs poetry: the consciousness of the internal and social tendencies of speech to progress in linear ways, coupled with the desire to throw monkey wrenches in the path of that progress, so as to encounter experience without capturing it (or letting it slip through your fingers, it amounts to the same thing). A writer most at home in the sentence, or the paragraph, who needs that volta, that break, to feel that writing is sufficient to an identity-experience that has spent most of history on the invisible margins. It fascinates me. As a poet I have often adventured with the prose poem or prose block (I have a chapbook that consists of nothing but) and felt that the logic of the line break was still with me, though I depended maybe more on parataxis than white space. Now that I'm writing a novel which is, in many ways alas, a conventional novel with a story to tell, I'm bewitched by sentences, by their flow (Gladman says that when she writes in longhand, as I'm doing, the sentence takes precedence over the paragraph and I find that true for me as well). Perhaps some other, future project will take me into this fruitful zone of hybridity (or maybe it's yet to occur in the novel-writing process, or maybe it's occurred and I'm blind to it), but I am now very curious to read Gladman's "fiction" and to discover what is and isn't "poetic" about it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Taking a few minutes away from grading creative writing portfolios to write this. The novel chugs along, but for the past week and a half at semester’s end I’ve been devoting my limited writing time to assembling a new manuscript of poems. It surprises me that I can do this, but I was inspired by Catherine Wagner’s My New Job, one of five interesting (and as always, handsomely designed) titles that the good people at Fence Books have seen fit to send me. These are:

  • Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton. I hadn’t heard of Kearney before this but I love the highly visual language he’s come up with for these poems, especially given their usage of popular rap songs as source material. It’s as if Tom Cruise’s virtual crimesolving screen from Minority Report were being used to track black American culture.
  • Macgregor Card’s Duties of an English Foreign Secretary. I haven’t spent much time yet with this book from one of the former editors of The Germ. But one of the notes in the back caught my eye—it’s apparently a book written in tandem with another poet’s book, a woman whose name escapes me (don’t have the books here). That’s an interesting and tricky way to bring off a collaboration.
  • Laura Sims’ Stranger. Spare, sad lyrics in memoriam for Sims’ mother. Mostly I am struck by how both the haunting Gerhard Richter cover image and the subject matter (the loss of a mother born in the 40s and lost in the 90s) rhyme with that of Selah.
  • Elizabeth Marie Young’s Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize. Playful postmodern prose poems that suck me in with their exuberance (Lyn Hejinian’s blurb claims that they “linguisticate”). Arranged in alphabetical order just like Ashbery’s new book Planisphere (little J.A. needs no links from me). My observation is that this looks great on a table of contents page provided you’ve used most of the letters of the alphabet and if not, not.

Of the bunch it’s Wagner’s that has held my interest most closely—I’ve admired her for a long time for Miss America and Macular Hole (also available from Fence), books which attack the feminist project from a space at once cerebral and visceral. My New Job continues this, taking on female sexuality where Miss America was primarily concerned with images of the feminine and Macular Hole was preoccupied with pregnancy and childbirth (you could say then that the books are published out of order).

My New Job has a savage and sexy wit, but its greatest strength is its formal variety. And when I saw from the notes in the back that it’s actually a compilation of chapbooks, I was newly inspired to see what could be done with my own chapbooks of the past few years, Compos(t)ition Marble and Hope & Anchor. The age has demanded or seemed to demand in the past fifteen years the concept book: poems with a plot, or at least books with some discussable and therefore promotable “hook,” concept, or master form. The poetry collection as such has become antiquated, territory ceded to Quietism.

This is a shame, because as much as I like concept books (as a progressive rock fan from way back I’ve always loved concept albums, rock operas, and other such pretensions: long live Thick as a Brick, long live “Bohemian Rhapsody”!), they do have a tendency to subordinate and overdetermine the poems. That’s why the year-ago workshop on Severance Songs was so valuable to me: my friends convinced me that superimposing a conceptual structure on those poems was suppressing their native energies and alchemies. Removing that superstructure helped me to rediscover the infrastructure that was already there, the real conversation those poems were always having with each other about ethics and aesthetics, love and shame.

My New Job splits the difference in a way by being not a collection of poems but a collection of chapbooks, each of which seems to manifest a degree of conceptual unity but which, as sections, have a relation to each other I can only describe as paratactic. It has inspired me to create a new assemblage of my chapbooks and of chapbook-sized sections of new poems, and though it doesn’t have a title yet I can tell that they fit and resonate with each other in surprising ways. (Surprising at least to me: most surprising is the apparent consistency of my own sensibility—I don’t appear to be anywhere near done with what you might call the ironic baroque.)

It’s a pleasure to be actively working on poetry again and to be thinking about the questions putting a poetry book together asks of me, while simultaneously slowly accreting the bits of narrative that will eventually, I trust, cohere into something I can call a novel. Not the least pleasure now available to me is that of procrastination: if I don’t feel like working on one project I can always fiddle with the other, and go to bed in the evening feeling like I’ve accomplished something no matter what.

Speaking of Severance Songs, Tupelo now tells me it won’t be published until Spring 2011. This is disappointing, but it does mean more time to get things exactly right. And with any luck its publication will coincide with my first sabbatical, so that I can actually take the time to go on the road with the book in a way I’ve never quite done before. Stay tuned.

Popular Posts