Poet Deborah Woodard on capturing, repairing, and reincarnating lives both real and imagined.
Deborah Woodard’s Borrowed Tales (Stockport Flats, 2012) traces love, disability, and incarceration while toying with our understanding of various historical figures like artist Gordon Matta-Clark and education-pioneer/social worker Catherine Ferguson. This past summer, we corresponded about poetic debt, found objects, Vermont childhoods, and ruin.
Caitie Moore At first, I read the eleven different sections in Borrowed Tales as autonomous and the discrete poems as angles of light shed on a particular tale. By the end, I felt the sections were more interdependent. How do these sections work?
Deborah Woodard Each section is a character’s name, and each name leads to a tale or tales. I like my publisher’s idea that the characters congregate, that they somehow traverse time and space to entwine and germinate collectively. In other words, that they have a collective identity of some kind, even as they range from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to a friend’s son (Vince), and from a former student of mine (Elaine) to a camellia bush (Camellia). That last one was my friend Don Mee Choi’s idea. She has such wonderful instincts. And she helped me organize the names on a little piece of paper. I can still visualize this paper with the founding names, to which I added others as the collection developed. I felt very free to explore in this book, and so poems about the Catherine Ferguson Academy—a school for pregnant and parenting teens—led to a poem about Catherine Ferguson herself. After I wrote the Lorna section, I added a section about Lorna’s children, the Gordon and Martha section (loosely a tribute to the artist Gordon Matta-Clark). Beyond the tendrils extending and entwining, I would say that my old theme of orphanhood unifies the book. Ultimately, all the characters congregate and give me the courage to stand newly bereft, in a wet bathing suit in junior high school in the Deborah section at the end.
Kate Zambreno and S. D. Chrostowska discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.
Kate Zambreno Your novel Permission follows Fearn Wren, a pseudonymous narrator who has embarked upon an experiment—to write a series of “notes” over email to an unnamed artist. These notes consist of meditations and interrogations on writing, memory, atrocity, and solitude, among other concerns. Wren sets out the terms of this experiment quite strictly at its origin: the notes (not letters, Wren insists, not journal entries) will comprise a book, of which this chosen recipient will be the first reader and whose begged-for silence will operate as tacit permission. I was struck by how contemporary these concerns are while nonetheless engaged with the slow, weird birth of the novel as Henry James’ “baggy monster.” It’s a history Wren is quite aware of, with sources in both the bourgeois epistolary novel and nineteenth-century adventures in serial publication. (I’m twinning this in my mind as I Love Dickens. Forgive me for the pun—I just taught Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, a work that Permission reminds me of formally, in the idea of a one-sided correspondence with a famous thinker that allows the narrator to essay, to attempt, to come into being as a writer, and also in just how radically discursive both works are: novels daring to be philosophy and how this is, in a way, not permitted in our contemporary landscape.) Which brings me to the reader, this reader we as novelists are supposed to be always hyperaware of—what the reader wants, what the reader likes, what the reader needs. I love this concept that I see in Permission of the writer-narrator taking an ideal reader somewhat hostage.
In his most recently translated novel, Sergio Chejfec continues to craft a style and world all his own.
Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.
Renee Gladman and Amina Cain on lingering with a moment, operating in the dark, and moving through membranes.
Each fall, Dorothy, a publishing project releases two books that frame a conversation about what fiction can do and be. This “conversation” is imagined as taking place primarily in a reader’s mind. An actual discussion between authors is, of course, not always possible, but the pairing published this month—Amina Cain’s Creature and the third book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge—brings together two contemporary American writers who have much to say to one another, not only in their work but outside it as well. In the following discussion, which took place over the month of October, they talk not only about their new books, but about language as a stage, the dreams books have, landscape painting, and stories as cluttered tables.
Renee Gladman I want to begin by asking you about slowness. Very general, I know. But it’s something I think about when I read your narratives: the duration of a moment of perception. Or perhaps, the sense has more to do with a certain silence around perception, which I’m reading as speed, but which might have more to do with space. Where do words like “slowness” or “silence” land when you think about the nature of experience or subjectivity?
Amina Cain I do often see “duration” within perception as a kind of spaciousness (something I am always trying to find, both in my stories and in my life), but, interestingly, I just finished an essay on my relationship to writing and it’s called “Slowness.” In it, I talk about how drawn I am to films (like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman) and books (like Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark) that seem to move slowly, or that when they do build up to something with some kind of energy, do so without the promise of “real” drama, not unlike what it is to prepare to meditate.
Stephen Dixon on growing novels, compound perspectives, and cutting a path through bereavement with memory alone.
Stephen Dixon has been publishing fiction for fifty years. He is the author of sixteen novels and fifteen collections of stories. Throughout his writing career he has been an innovator in literary style, developing new ways of presenting characters through dialogue and point of view.
In his latest novel, His Wife Leaves Him, a husband and father, shocked and guilty over his wife’s death, recalls their life together—their meeting, years rearing children, her illness, and the strain of caring for her. In doing so, the character recovers his courage and strength of purpose.
I interviewed Stephen Dixon at his home in a hilly suburb of Baltimore. The house, with its brick fireplace and oak trim, reminds him of a hunting lodge, albeit one filled with books. He writes every day, usually in the morning.
Ted Hendricks Could you tell me about the title, His Wife Leaves Him?
Stephen Dixon It’s a pretty complicated title.
Elizabeth Robinson crosses genre to reveal what it means to be haunted.
On Ghosts, the most recent book by Boulder-based poet Elizabeth Robinson, explores the phenomenon of haunting through essay/poem compositions. The premise takes for granted those uneasy disruptions of daily reality—for example, the suggestion of a face in bedroom darkness or the sudden telepathic yearning for a dying loved one. Although the voice of the text is reserved and almost impersonal, the reader comes into intimate range of the speaker’s uncertainty about “presences,” life, and identity. The combined effect knits an uncanny emotional texture that rings both brutal and delicate.
Julien Poirier on the chips in his brain, going all the way, and his book Stained Glass Windows of California.
It wouldn’t be out of line to describe Julien Poirier’s writing as pretty immature, fuck-offy perhaps, even YA at times. Here’s a husk of neurology left behind on page twelve of his underappreciated 2010 masterpiece El Golpe Chileño (Ugly Duckling Presse) titled “Police Aquarium”:
My soda is a police aquarium
to please you, I would say anything
rat out my best friend
“Your Wildest Dreams”
and never blink
’til my eyes
locked in yours
You’re the law I live to break
time to leave a clue
before the ice melts
This isn’t a love poem; it’s a poem that loves. It swims in the really shitty language of now and thinks it’s funny while everyone else stands on the shore and points. It’s Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd mistaken for Andy Griffith in The Andy Griffith Show. You can almost hear Ian Svenonius singing his lines, which want to get caught, then point fingers: “His mind was a wild garden of aspects / a pocketful of solar powered nickels.”
In Poirier’s universe, the world is a stale baguette with goldfish caviar and moldy matchtips. Call it what you want. He hangs out behind the Kum and Go with Bob Kauffman, Bernadette Mayer, Richard Brautigan, and Henri Michaux and eats it.
Noel Black I’ve read your chapbook about five times now. I was looking for the right glasses through which to see it until I finally realized it was a pair of stained-glass glasses of California. It was like watching you put shards of Diebenkorn, Steinbeck, Stein, and Beck into this apocalyptic Wizard of Oz Musée Mécanique Tiffany window. How did you come to putting this thing together?
Julien Poirier Thanks, Noel. I love everything you mentioned. Beck too, my fellow Scientologist.
Well—I was writing on the fly all the time because I was in between work and taking care of my daughter. I’d end up with lots of pieces, like skit poems. They weren’t finished poems on their own and they all seemed like shadows of each other, though establishing shots were often missing. I had been assembling poem systems of this sort for about a year, and Stained Glass was the final system in that sequence.
Memoirist Royal Young on misbehavior, the nice Jewish boy inside him, and seeking fame after a stint on the casting couch.
One night, I encountered Royal Young at the top of a narrow staircase, standing beside a woman who introduced herself as “Royal’s mom.” She offered me a tangerine and a glass of fruit juice. The disarming gathering was a literary salon, held in what I later discovered was the setting for Young’s memoir: the art-laden living room of his parents’ rambling Lower East Side apartment. The bohemian dream home to a certain species of New Yorker, its trove of handmade objects reminded me of how I grew up—gazing at tribal talismans, masks, and weapons. Young and I were raised in similar circles, centered on art and film, but two decades apart. Our fathers led parallel lives. His is a painter with an outsider’s flair, edge, and verve. Mine was the pioneering documentary filmmaker and explorer, Robert E. Dierbeck, now dead. We’d been raised by a pair of men who’d achieved prominence in their respective fields yet had been set mysteriously adrift for a time, like two isolated desert wanderers. Though I knew little about Royal Young, I became curious and then beguiled that night as he took the stage—a stretch of carpet between the sofa and the table—and began to read.
Young’s memoir, Fame Shark, unfolds in a seamier, dingier New York—a city whose sidewalks glitter with broken glass. Brooklyn attracts more drug dealers than poseurs. Manhattan is populated by rich foot fetishists, poor artists, and seedy modeling agents who prey upon bright young things while thinly disguising their pedophilia. Darkly comic, this harrowing coming-of-age story chronicles a teenager’s desperate hunt for stardom. It exposes its narrator’s naked ambition, sad yearnings, and bad decisions with such self-deprecating wit that we can’t help but like him, even if his own father locks the door against him and his mother tearfully admits she hates him.
The book is Young’s first. At the end of the summer, we made a date to talk it over.
Royal Young It’s hard being back in New York. When you’re away, you’re surrounded by trees and you don’t see fifty shitheads when you get out your door.
Lisa Dierbeck It’s like the first day of school. Everyone’s scurrying around. I had so much anxiety with all my meetings and deadlines, then realized they were largely imaginary.
Brandon Shimoda dives into travel, dragon’s whiskers, the poetry of decision-making, spirits-within-spirits, and city versus country.
Poetry books often become artifacts through personal experience or reputation. They demonstrate why we hunger for labyrinths of beauty and reason. They, like Brandon Shimoda’s newest full-length Portuguese, are otherworldly, intensely present, and unmistakable in their singularity.
Portuguese—the inaugural collection published jointly by Octopus Books and Tin House Books—epitomizes that class of timeless art. It can be found in bookstores or buried in the Southwestern desert. It bears the complicated history of a true artifact: ghostly yet grounded. Its poems glide down a staircase with steps of different sizes. We swoon and jerk. We’re convinced the speaker’s family is our own.
Shimoda’s poems manage a clarity that Sappho would employ in 2013, an empirical exactness, and potency. The reader stands on a wooded island stacked on top of other islands. A whisper grows with the timbre of a boom, and one carries the echo for good luck.
On the jacket of Portuguese, twenty-six blurbs speak in awe of Brandon Shimoda—and rightfully so. I emailed with him over the course of several months, spanning a handful of continents.
Daniel Moysaenko You explain in the epilogue to Portuguese that as a young child an older kid on the school bus called you Portuguese, though to your knowledge you aren’t ethnically Portuguese. You go on to investigate the relationship between your Japanese ancestry and that boy’s insistence on a different identity. A number of poems in Portuguese call to mind this doubleness: hermaphrodites, androgyny, “two wives with one body,” “a face bulging out of another face,” “the possibility of being / In two places simultaneously.” Could you talk a little about that? The liminal space, a bridge between two identified categories—is it obliteration of borders, compassion, complication of self-image, something else?
Brandon Shimoda I’ve experienced the sensation that I am my sister many times—not that I am both myself and the sister of myself, but that I am only one self, my sister, my actual sister: Kelly Shimoda. It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced this, but I remember it well. It was a sensation, both physical and mental, and transitory, of course. In those moments, I had a brother: Brandon Shimoda. I was not Brandon. Brandon was someone else: my brother. It’s possible I was slipping into the body and mind of a third sibling, mostly sister, but not, a sibling neither sister nor brother. I don’t know where I have felt at home, if anywhere. I am half of many things, though do and do not know when to undertake or operate a hyphen.
Broken and accidental topographies in The Obituary, a new novel by Gail Scott.
As a former political journalist and as a queer, feminist, francophone, Quebecois experimental writer Gail Scott cannot help but to radicalize everything she touches. In The Obituary, her latest novel, the evils of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism are complicated into a haunted tale of geopolitical trauma and family history. I asked Gail to speak with me about the experience of what stays buried and what gets exhumed within the rich sediment of her novel.
“No human lineage is certain” — The Obituary
Kim Rosenfield What struck me when I began reading The Obituary was the epigraph you used by psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok: “what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Their ideas of the Phantom, of the crypt, seem like the ideal theoretical frame for exploring your novel. In fact I’d like to use their thinking to guide this interview. Very few people, even in the analytic field, know their work, and those who do find it difficult. How did you come to read them and what does this particular quote mean for you in terms of the novel?
Gail Scott Kim, I love this question, the epigraph has been little discussed and of course epigraphs play in some part the role of beacon. Lisa Robertson introduced me to Abraham and Torok during a visit to Vancouver. I was telling her about the quandary of writing a work to do with shame in assimilated families, yet adamantly not wanting to do an identitary or quest novel. My prose has been concerned with the redistribution of narration over a broken or accidented terrain in order to trouble conventional relations of narrator, narration, and narrative. I have been avoiding using, as best I can, unary-voiced narration by sharding “character” to allow a maximum porosity or absorption of noise and text along a line where intrinsic and extrinsic meet. To use elements of family history was to risk getting stuck in a conventional rendering of the past (nostalgia). The critical notion that I retained from reading Abraham and Torok’s The Shell and the Kernel was the notion of ventriloquism, which treats the speaking voice as a conduit of multiple voices, past and present, endogenous and exogenous. This allows the unconscious chorus of previous generations and their social conditions to be deployed as part of the present racket. If the chorus remains repressed in the family or historical narrative, then whatever or whoever steps on stage to speak has all her unresolved anger and shame stowed away in a secreted gap “within,” as if walking around with a “stranger” in the belly. How perfect for a tale of First Nation cultural [and actual] genocide, which is, in so many ways, a founding meta-narrative of continental culture. What the novel turned out to be “about,” which I always only learn at the end of writing, was an investigation of “who speaks when ‘one’ speaks.”
A spy in the fight club of love—Joanna Howard on epistolary fiction, cage-fighting, and her new book.
I was hooked, gaffed, netted (many seafaring verbs come to mind) by Joanna Howard’s writing when I first read her chapbook, In the Colorless Round, a collection of short tales published in 2006 and faced opposite sketches by Rikki Ducornet. It’s rare for me to feel so absolutely submerged in language, even as a gossamer-thin, high-test narrative line pulls me forward. Then I fell in love with the specters, sailors, waifs, ingénues, and matinee idols who populate Howard’s fiction collection, On the Winding Stair (Boa Editions 2009), a book that pressurizes recognizable genre tropes until a morphogenetic change occurs and figures never before encountered begin to haunt the language.
Howard’s new book, Foreign Correspondent, just released by Counterpath, is a different kind of stunner. The architectural sentences that characterize her earlier work are certainly here, but the world they create is ultra-modern; here the decadence is the decadence of late capitalism, and keen attention to objects becomes a vexed commentary on the allure of the commodity-form. This novel incorporates multiple modes of address as reporter Johnnie James attempts to make authentic connections through various correspondence, reaching toward others in language and in life, and discovering always the distance inherent in desire. It’s a remarkable book—a series of ironized, slyly hilarious glosses on twenty-first-century American culture and a poignant and philosophical investigation of human relations like love, longing, and the potential for violence or tenderness when bodies finally touch.
I corresponded with Howard about how she composed Foreign Correspondent, about her narrative strategies, and about her obsessions, which include film, philosophy, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Joanna Ruocco I was struck by the way the fragments—conversations, letters, dispatches, ripostes—accrete to give this book the impression of a journey, even though they aren’t arranged in strict chronological order. And, also, not very much happens! Johnnie James goes on assignments, communicates with her friend (another Johni), interacts with the philosopher Alphonso, goes to jiu-jitsu class, and begins and more-or-less ends a letter-writing campaign to a cage-fighter from her hometown who responds infrequently and then not at all. Yet somehow I felt the peaks and troughs of intensity that I experience when I read a more conventional, plot-driven novel. For me, this is achieved through the way that correspondence itself becomes the book’s subject. There’s a playful style here that veers between “high” and “low” registers. It’s pleasurable and surprising to turn a page and find pop culture in the clinch with philosophical musings on other-directed subjectivity. I wonder how you conceived of this project and how you began to organize the material. What was the seed of this book? Did you think about creating narrative tension and discharge as you arranged the pieces? Johnnie James occasions all of this language. In what way is she a character for you?
Joanna Howard The book really began to come together around the form and the figure. At a certain point in my life it seemed like all my friends were elsewhere, and our significant exchanges had to either come via correspondence or not at all. It’s a real test to see how long you can sustain a relationship with only your words, and I’ve often felt that those who are particularly skilled at the explosive, evocative, and engaging letter have the best chance of keeping these tenuous relationships working. The pandering, proffering pleas and promises run right alongside the mundane reports and de rigeur formalities. Receiving a letter from another person where style was not only being carefully considered but deployed with great art is just as exciting as the construction of language pyrotechnics in your next reposte! I began to chastise myself for pouring all my creative energy into regular letters to a few individuals. So I turned my attention to the form itself and what was so attractive and beguiling to me about that form, and also the way in which it opened up a longing that was never being filled.
Lara Mimosa Montes looks back to another era and reappraises her own with Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays.
“For half the decade I lived in New York City, and yet I didn’t go to a single Andy Warhol opening,” writes Warhol biographer Wayne Koestenbaum in his new book My 1980s & Other Essays. A prolific poet and cultural critic, he invites us here to reconsider that era, as well as the private raptures of writing and of writing autobiographically. Placing himself at the periphery, the book begins with a confession—the embarrassing, perhaps commonly omitted admission that the author wasn’t even really there. But who was? Who among those living in the ‘80s was ever totally there? Moreover, who has survived to speak of it? Among the Warhol superstars, not many. Among those who contracted HIV when it was still referred to as GRID in the early years of the epidemic, even less. Given the recent retrospective group exhibitions in New York concerned with the confluence of art and HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, such as the New Museum’s “NYC 1993” or the Whitney’s “I, YOU, WE,” Koestenbaum’s book feels tailor-made for these deeply introspective times.
Novelist Ali Liebegott on humor as self-defense and bounty in the trash.
Ali Liebegott’s books evoke a life-affirming sensation that comes from embracing the pendular. Her ability to hit the right tone is scientific, almost violent in its precision—a single word or observation, well-placed, can have a reader crying or laughing aloud. I do both when I read her writing.
We spoke at a small café in San Francisco’s Mission District. Liebegott was about to go on a reading tour with Sister Spit—a queer and queer-friendly performance roadshow—and was just that very week celebrating a double book release with the new City Lights/Sister Spit imprint: a reissue of her classic The Beautifully Worthless, which is a novel composed largely of poems and letters, alongside Cha-Ching!, her most recent book.
Evan Karp Let’s talk about Cha-Ching! How did it come about?
Ali Liebegott I don’t even remember. I was writing and noticed there was a lot of gambling, and then . . .
Caryl Pagel on the visionary poetics of “writing the trance.”
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death takes place where scientific exploration, archival research, and poetry combine. When I read her work I’m reminded that all imaginative writing is a quasi-scientific experiment into the way meaning accrues. Here the poet puts forth a hypothesis of swerving, clanging syntax, and caesura. An inquiry is made into the void and something is carried back.
These poems continually find new gestures for entering the unknown, new schema for staring into a shadow until something almost nameable appears there. Her work gets at the heart of so much poetry: the desire to communicate differently, the desire to join the worldly with the other-worldly, to take what may only be glimpsed and pin it down and stare at it, to imbibe that energy and then leave through an open window. At the heart of this, I think, is the attempt to make the imagination real, to translate it from ephemeral to tangible. As such, these poems’ gift is twofold: as documents that we might watch and learn, and as an implicit call toward experiment as a means of writing and living—such that we might transcend like they do.
Looking at the interview we have compiled, I am struck by Pagel’s great, green hope for what words might do and her companion belief in literature’s ability to bring us into more contact with what we can barely know. We corresponded for a few months this winter and spring, and I was frequently afraid of stumbling in the attempt to keep up with her intellect, her reading, and the ways in which she synthesizes ideas across disciplines, genres, and whole centuries. But, similar to the speakers of her poems, she was a patient, friendly guide.
Jack Christian How did you get started working on the project that became Experiments? How did the book get its title?
Caryl Pagel I remember that the poem “Table Talking” came first and was written while reading a biography of William James that I found in the Provincetown public library, which led to an interest in the Society for Psychical Research—a late-1800s group of renegade scientists who investigated many of the ideas I was thinking about: apparitions, patterns of grief, clairvoyance, collaborative research, testimony as proof, etc.
The title is appropriated from an essay by Hereward Carrington, one of the members of the SPR. Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death suggests the extreme and crazy generosity of certain scientists (or artists) who commit everything, including their own body, to their life’s work (or in this case, literally, to death’s work). The title phrase also brings to mind W.G. Sebald and Sir Thomas Browne’s writing on burial, Japanese death poems, taxidermy, autopsy, telepathic testing, operating theaters, and ultimately that moment (in art and writing and love and life) where something transitions from living to dead—a moment ripe for experimentation and soul expansion and magic.
I like to imagine writing as a physical body of work born of the mulch of the mind, made of salvaging and re-harnessing old and unforgettable phrases, mistaken memories, fleeting feelings, ways of knowing, suspicions, and unanticipated association. In this way one might make a gift, or circuit, of death. There is Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade, Whitman’s “look for me under your boot-soles,” or Niedecker’s “Time to garden / before I / die— / to meet / my compost maker / the caretaker / of the cemetery.”
Vladimir Sorokin on writing, pets, and questions that would make Nabokov ask you to leave the room.
Berlin is full of opulent gates and splendid staircases. It is the kind of place where history licks you in the ear. Novelist Vladimir Sorokin splits his time between here and a mustard-colored dacha located about thirty miles outside of Moscow. A household name in his native Russia since the 1990s, his international breakthrough came later with the publication of Ice Trilogy, which has since been followed by Day of the Opritchnik and The Blizzard. He has been compared to Houellebecq and Gogol, known for his use of pastiche and satire.
Sorokin, who was among this year’s nominees for the Man Booker Prize, claims to be “a shy guy.” His intonation jolts slightly, which installs a gap between his utterance and the moment it becomes a sound. He likes to begin sentences in English then continue in Russian. He looks like he is made of silver—his hair, shirt, and trousers. We spoke in his Berlin office, which is almost empty.
Kathrine Tschemerinsky Your books have been called anti-utopian. Do you think this is a good concept to use when aiming to describe your work?
Vladimir Sorokin Well, with Ice Trilogy, one can call it anti-utopian. I don’t have anything against that. Although, in fact, that was never really my intention. The aim of the book was to look at the history of the twentieth century from an unexpected perspective, even from a bit of an inhuman perspective. First and foremost, I wanted to make a gift for myself . . . because the history of the twentieth century involves so much cliché. A lot of things are now just a blur. It was necessary to find a way to examine it anew. For that, the Tunguska meteor helped me a lot.
Chris Cumming on the revelatory rediscovery of Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms.
It’s easy to dismiss grandiose claims about art and the nature of reality, especially when they’re made by a writer who spent time in a mental hospital. This is one reason why the rediscovery of the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms has not led to much serious consideration of his ideas. In America, at least, Kharms’ life and his famous eccentricities have received as much attention as his work, a sad but predictable fate for a writer who enjoyed walking around Leningrad holding a butterfly net and wrote poetry in invented languages.
Ben Ryder Howe speaks about the amazing mind of Charles Newman and how he managed to reconstruct the American avant-gardist’s last novel.
The American avant-garde author Charles Newman is perhaps best known for two things: first, transforming TriQuarterly from a little-known literary journal into a cultural force that broke the news to US readers on many of postmodernism’s leading innovators—including Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, William H. Gass, and John Barth—and second, writing books that challenged and rebuked that very postmodern literature at every turn. A notoriously hard-living man and extremely fastidious writer, Newman hewed out an idiosyncratic oeuvre of four novels, two book-length essays, and a number of critical studies (as editor) across three decades. He did not publish a book between 1985 and his death by heart attack in 2006, though he did leave behind an apartment’s-worth of boxes full of manuscripts for a massive, uncompleted project that was to comprise a nine-volume cycle taking place in a fictitious Eastern European nation. Its theme, Newman once wrote, was to be “the great un-American novel.”
After Newman’s death, his nephew, the author and editor Ben Ryder Howe, got to work shuffling through the mountains of papers that his uncle left behind and discovered in them the overture to Newman’s massive project—a substantial novel called In Partial Disgrace, subsequently published by Dalkey Archive Press this year. An exceedingly strange work that combines an account of Sigmund Freud (never named and always referred to as “the Professor”) with a World War II era spy narrative à la James Bond, the book revels in aphoristic sentences, absurd humor, and the intricacies of dog breeding, among other things, while beginning to chart an alternative history of the twentieth century. Although it is incomplete and frequently maddening for the coherence it promises but does not quite deliver, the book is nonetheless lavish with ideas, show-stopping scenes, and rhetorical excess.
I interviewed Howe by email about Newman, his mysterious project, his rarefied writing style, the process of sifting through all those thousands of pages, and the literary tastes of a man who seemed to disdain all literary traditions equally. Our conversation ranged from the “critical nukings” Newman could dish out to his unique creative process, the European equivalent of the American Midwest, and what authors, if any, Newman did esteem.
Scott Esposito You’ve written that you discovered the manuscript for In Partial Disgrace dispersed across several Federal Express boxes in Newman’s apartment about a month after his death. When did it become apparent to you what you’d found in there?
Ben Ryder Howe Charlie seemed to be operating a FedEx drop-off center out of his office when I opened it up. There were so many boxes and envelopes, so much packing material, and so many blank address forms that I wondered if he was preparing to send out a manuscript to publishers. But then I looked in the boxes, and while some of them indeed contained a manuscript for In Partial Disgrace, it wasn’t the same version in each one. Some had markings, some did not, some were missing pages. I saw nothing to indicate which was the latest draft. Moreover, Charlie seemed to be sending them all to himself—that is, to his office in St. Louis, where he reluctantly spent a few months of the year teaching. Later his assistant told me he just kept tinkering and tinkering, rewriting sentences, restructuring sections, inserting new paragraphs, changing the font. Charlie had always liked using multiple typefaces in his books and, after learning how to use computers late in life, found the ability to switch fonts irresistible.
For me it was discouraging. I already knew the book was a challenge, having read a version of it years earlier. As Tom Bissell recently reminded me—I had told Tom at the time how depressed I was about it—ideally it was a combination of Solzhenitsyn and Tolkien, a mixture of fantasy and the cold war told from an Eastern point of view. But the execution was much weirder and darker, and the Borgesian puzzle in the office compounded the mystery. You know the Elizabeth Hardwick quote, “Two pictures puzzles dumped in one box”? That’s how I felt.
Tréy Sager on moral relativism, the Odyssey as a prescriptive text, and resisting categorization alongside Fifty Shades of Gray.
Fires of Siberia is a romance novel that features a character based on Michele Bachmann. Promoted as an “old-fashioned bodice ripper,” it’s the most recent addition to the Badlands Unlimited roster, which includes Calvin Tompkins’s interviews with Marcel Duchamp and On Democracy by Saddam Hussein. The author is Tréy Sager, also known as Trey Sager, who, when not coining yet another euphemism for snowbound cunnilingus, is a fiction writer, editor at Fence, and author of two chapbooks of poetry—Dear Failures and O New York, both with Ugly Duckling Presse. We met in the West Village to drink beer and peck at fried potatoes while talking about his most recent project. Trey was fresh from the media storm that had greeted Fires in the days surrounding its release, and our conversation verged on giddy as we spoke about the cognitive dissonance the novel was eliciting, compared notes about the temptations of writing fiction for a poet, and dissected the art of simulating sex with words.
Anna Moschovakis When you first told me you were writing this book, I understood there was a didactic impulse behind it on the part of the publisher, Paul Chan—as opposed to good, clean, ironic entertainment or some kind of multivalent institutional critique. Is there a purpose to this book?
Tréy Sager Well, I don’t want to speak for Paul, but in one of our early conversations he talked about wanting to help people figure out how to live in the world. We talked about the Odyssey and how it’s more or less a manual on how to behave at other people’s homes. I don’t pretend to know how to live life, even my own life, so Fires was never going to be overly prescriptive in that manner, like in a follow-this-path or everybody-should-just-have-sex-all-the-time kind of way. Although maybe everyone should just have sex all the time, I probably believe that . . . . Anyway, it’s woven in there. So yes, Fires is a morally relative, non-prescriptive prescription in some ways.
As Alissa Nutting’s Tampa scandalizes readers, the author defends her novel’s transgressive eroticism as a devilish temptation that readers must resist.
Alissa Nutting’s first collection of short fiction, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, was selected by Ben Marcus for the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. That book—made up of stories with titles like “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” “Corpse Smoker,” “Teenager,” “Hellion,” and “She-Man”—is an often fantastical, always mockingly familiar taxonomy of female “types.” The protagonists of each tale continually peel, erase, or redecorate the labels that the author applies to them along with the associations that readers might have with such labels. Michael Martone called the pieces “panoplies of syntactic semantic seismic wonders.” Kate Bernheimer said of Nutting: “I want to be her avatar.”
Nutting’s first novel, Tampa, is out now from Ecco/HarperCollins. The hardcover has a furry black jacket that is hard not to stroke like a campy villain petting a Persian in heat. Based on Debra LeFave, a high-school classmate of Nutting who in 2004 was arrested in Florida for lewd and lascivious battery of her fourteen-year-old male student, Tampa is narrated by Celeste, a young, gorgeous, effortlessly manipulative, cruelly incisive junior-high teacher with an insatiable sexual compulsion for adolescent boys. An unapologetically dark, dangerously comic social satire, the novel needles gender, power, violence, love, desire, age, commodification, justice, and any other balloon of contemporary hot air that’s there for the popping. It’s a deliriously enjoyable, absolutely shocking book—a morality tale that tempts and taunts readers to succumb to every kind of immorality.
Here Nutting makes clear that cheap titillation is not what her novel is about, and suggests that literature won’t find any answers if it’s afraid to explore questions for all that they’re worth.
Micaela Morrissette In the course of the novel, Celeste seduces two fourteen-year-old boys: Jack and Boyd. In neither case can the reader hold on to any absolute certainty as to whether she is an unforgivable predator, or a teenager’s fantasy, or both—the predation dependent on the fantasy, the fantasy on the predation. Much of the reading experience balances delicately upon this, and you acknowledge the question directly at the end of the book, though without resolving it.
The boys’ experiences seem very different. Jack is on the losing end of a very distinct imbalance of power: he’s deeply in love with Celeste and unable to resist her deliberate manipulations. As for Boyd, there’s almost nothing in the book to imply that he suffers any ill effects from the trysts. With Jack, you find ways to imply abuse, but you empower Boyd with what seems like self-determination, real individual agency, and the power of free choice. Why?
Alissa Nutting I felt like the book needed both characters in order to acknowledge the different social views surrounding this type of scandal. With Jack, we easily see the emotional harm she causes him, both inside and outside of their sexual relationship. With Boyd, his “fun” never seems to stop. One of the troubling things about the dialogue surrounding these cases in the media is the conflation of arousal with consent when it comes to underage males and female adults. There’s this sense of, “he wanted it, he enjoyed it, so what’s the harm?” So Boyd’s character is me needling that discussion. We don’t see him feeling upset about their encounter, which I think is important.
What I want readers to ask is this: Are the same acts she does with Boyd as she does with Jack somehow less wrong because of Boyd’s reaction? Is an underage victim’s reaction relevant to the act’s criminality? How capable are fourteen-year-olds (or minors in general) of weighing in on the psychological harm that’s being done to them, or predicting how these events will psychologically affect them in the future?
Poet Jack Christian on secular prayer, swashbuckling and keeping up appearances in his new book, Family System.
When BOMB asked me to interview Jack Christian about his book Family System, I knew right away we needed some rich food between us. Jack’s poems burn a lot of calories. They’re hopscotchers and spitballers. What they do with their eyebrows is faster than jogging but pointed toward prayer. Family System is a mangy, stone-skipping, clever, juking, ropeswing-over-the-swimming-hole-of-selfhood book of poems. They are shaking their fist at the God of trash talk. They say, “How sane to be a knucklehead with a wagon to tote a friend in.” Jack Christian wrote a book called Family System, which won the 2012 Colorado Poetry Prize, and this book says, “We decide the road looks like a nomadic leaf sculptor / went walking up it and down it. That his life’s work took a day.”
So email wouldn’t cut it. We needed to drive through a snowstorm and eat bourbon-chocolate pie and fried chicken and andouille sausage in Western Massachusetts’s best (and/or only) Cajun outpost. And we needed to talk about Family System so Jack could show me why I’m wrong, mostly, to Huckleberry Finnize him.
In talking to Jack, I was hoping to learn more about how he saw the titular concept of family, and what “family” meant to the restless swimmer I read in these poems, the one who would just as soon dislocate his shoulder in an inner tube as hang back on the bank eating civilized sweet pickles with an aunt-in-law. Craft? For sure: I wanted to talk about Jack’s sly over-articulated phrasing, like “Our tunes were of motorboat” and “The Swampwater Baptism includes a gator as expected / and a man who rides the gator, which is permitted, / and a gown that gets wet, but not exclusively.”
Plus if we ended up with an interview bigger than the book itself, I thought maybe it would make Jack look super cool and important in a you-know-you’ve-made-it-when-you’ve-got-an-interview-longer-than-your-book sort of way. Jack is a gold friend and a heavy influence and an older brother figure to me, so I wanted to eat with him and talk with him—shit talk, guffaw squak, OK-but-really-let’s-talk—as those of us who know Jack always love to do.
What I found out was that this book is really the chronicle of a poet in transition, a poet growing up on Frank Stanford and tomahawk yawps but wanting to find his way into a calmer place. As Jack says, going from next hill to planting still. Like what happens when the kid wrestling with his brother in the back seat realizes he’s about set to start a family of his own? How is the rambler with the mom and dad who held summer conferences on how to be a good family going to figure out a way to live in so many different selves and skins without crawling out of them?
And in so talking, I think we shined out a little something that’s really useful for young poets. Jack Christian is somebody I look to. When young poets wake up in a town they suddenly realize they can see themselves living in for a long time, they should open up Family System.
Talking with Jack, I realized that Family System is more than a book with a bunch of whammy lines—post-Ashbery managing a rural grocery store, making jokes about how he’s not from around here, jokes that give everybody who is from around here a crush on him. It’s that, but it’s also a personal book. It’s Jack’s book. It’s a fascinating, hilarious book, and the sugar in its tea is a big, bashful, nervous, and very joyful blood.
Mike Young So the first question I wanted to ask was about the projectness of this book. Family System is what it’s called, and then there’s a line that says, “a family is its own school of painting,” and there are all these names. And a lot of times the names are accompanied by the way you define a person with something that’s elusive, but there’s a lot of swagger to the phrasing. Like, “He’s a real Joe Miller.” And everything fits inside that. So the question is about how you figured out the boundaries of this project.
Jack Christian I guess the first thing is that the name Family System was just about the very last thing that I did. I don’t know if that makes me look foolish or good, but I tried many other titles that I liked, and they didn’t really work. So I spent a long time thinking about how I had all these poems that didn’t go together. And it was amazing to me when I started calling it Family System, how much they cohered to that.
In her first full-length book, Sara Wintz looks into the century that shaped her.
Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now, the first book by Oakland-based poet Sara Wintz, takes the twentieth century and gives it a new haircut. Here poetry accumulates around a chronology compiled from twentieth-century events and the births and deaths of personally significant artists, writers, musicians, and friends. The surrounding lyric does not, however, spend much time elaborating on such historical details. References do appear, but only briefly. Experiences are clearly present, but not necessarily laid bare. Rather, Wintz’s poetry, which is written in an open and colloquial style that moves between precise and abstract thought, circles around these dates as a sustained query into the relation between history and the individual. It’s a voice mulling over questions, seemingly as they arise, a kind of accompanying hum of thought as the author goes about selecting and constructing her own rendition. As such, Wintz invites readers to identify with her twentieth century and to consider constructing twentieth centuries of their own.
I first met Wintz in 2010 at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. Her love of poetry, music, and history were immediately palpable in her work, her conversation, and in her engagement with poetry communities. When I heard Ugly Duckling Presse would be publishing her first book in 2012, I was eager to chat with her about it. What follows is our conversation—what we call a “slo-chat”—which took place over email between February and April 2013.
Claire Wilcox Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book, and the main questions or concerns you had going into its creation? I’ve heard you refer to this book as “my century.” Why “century,” why “my”?
Sara Wintz The project is rooted in Wikipedia searches that I performed for each year of the twentieth century. I had a notebook and a pen next to my laptop. I would write “1959:” then go into Wikipedia and type “1959” to see what came up. I wrote down all the facts of interest to me.
Damion Searls on the transformation of English to English and the perception of American culture in his translation of Christa Wolf’s City of Angels: or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud.
City of Angels: or the overcoat of Dr. Freud, the final novel from German writer Christa Wolf, weaves us in and out of the life of an aging German writer who embarks on a year long journey of self-discovery. The narrator of the novel finds herself in Los Angeles among the rows of palm trees and an unwavering sun. It is here, in the city of angels, that Wolf’s spare prose and wit shines. Observing her surroundings and the quirks of American life, the narrator wonders how spies should dress, how to make small talk in elevators, combo dinners at sushi bars, and what to do with one-armed bandits (slot machines). As she asks a colleague whether or not what she is doing is typically German, she notes that question was, in itself, typically German. These perceptive observations from a foreigner add a keen whimsy to the book.
Translation is both an art and a science. When I find humor in foreign writing I often feel I want to tip my hat to the translator, for they are skillful enough to retain the author’s voice and, I’m guessing here, clever enough to ensure the book makes me laugh in my own language.
I recently met with Damion Searls, the English translator of this novel, who has described his past works on authors like Thoreau, Rilke, and Nescio, as “labors of love.” I met with the acute writer on a grey day in February at a café in Park Slope to discuss his close read and intense work with Christa Wolf’s final novel.
Larissa Zimberoff How did you first come to City of Angels?
Damion Searls Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux knew me and asked me to do a reader report on the German version of the book. Reader reports are interesting because they don’t necessarily take my opinion. I give them enough information to decide on their own. For this one, I think it’s her best book, or at least one of her very, very best books.
LZ That brings up another question, how familiar were you with her work?
DS Pretty familiar. I hadn’t read all of her books, but I knew who she was, what she was about and what she was important for. She has a very wide-ranging body of work: classical, political, feminist, and historical memoir-y stuff. Patterns of Childhood I think is the center of her work, which is her complicated autobiography of growing up as a Nazi girl. I thought the LA time capsule stuff (’92-’93) was just great. The LA Riots, the Bush/Clinton election that I hadn’t thought about, I mean it’s hilarious when she talks to the liberals in the book.
Andrew Sean Greer on time travel and the living of life in his new novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.
As a longtime reader of Andrew Sean Greer’s work, when I heard of a new book that was featured around a female protagonist, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. As a fan of The Adventures of Max Tivoli and Story of a Marriage, books I always recommend to other readers, I longed for the beauty and lyricism of his writing.
Andrew Sean Greer’s new book, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, is a book which appears to be about time travel but is centered around the yearning for the unknown, about the love of siblings, and about the struggles of everyday decisions. Greta Wells lives in Manhattan in the late 1980s but due to her electro-shock therapy for her depression, she time travels back to 1941 and 1918. What is most striking about these time periods is how certain we are that we are traveling with Greta on this journey through the layers of New York City and through the layers of herself.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is also a love-letter to a life worth living and to the fabulous city of New York. I very often thought of Michael Cunningham’s opening sections of, The Hours: “It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intricacy; its endless life . . . you find it impossible not to believe that it has always been a city; that if you dug beneath it you would find the ruins of another, older city, and then another and another.” Greta believes in the many lives of New York City, as should you.
Leah Umansky This is now your second book that plays with time (the first being one of my favorites, Max Tivoli). Where do you think your fascination with time stems from?
Andrew Sean Greer It’s a good question, because I’ve often been asked about a fascination with “history,” which isn’t true. My fascination is, as you say, with time. I am the kind of person who can barely stand still as I’m so anxious to fill every minute with something memorable; I am driven by a fear of minutes passing through my fingers. And yet, as a novelist sitting still is precisely what is called for. Luckily, writing is one of the few things in life that feeds on the passage of time and replaces the missing hours with pages, stories, ideas. I think Max Tivoli was my way of dealing with the disappearance of my youth, a time in which I hardly ever felt young. And this book is dealing with middle age and the lives one did not choose to live. The magical elements of both are just devices for me to get to the questions that haunt me.
A newly translated interview with Federico García Lorca by Luis Méndez Domínguez from 1933.
Although Lorca wrote the majority of the poems in his groundbreaking book Poet in New York while he was a student at Columbia University from 1929–30, he relished their oral transmission and only made them known to the public as part of a lecture first delivered in Madrid in 1932 and then repeated in other cities in Spain and South America. In the summer of 1936, Lorca had left the recently completed manuscript on the desk of his publisher José Bergamín with the note “Back tomorrow.” Such meeting never took place, for Lorca was murdered a few weeks later. Poet in New York was published posthumously in 1940.
In the interview translated below, which first appeared in the Spanish newspaper ABC on March 5, 1933, Lorca shares his vivid impressions of New York City, blending them with fragments of his poems recited from memory.
– Mónica de la Torre, Senior Editor, BOMB
—Suitcases: like García Sanchiz, like Paul Morand, like Albert Londres, Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish poet, the bard of Andalucía, is a lover of the suitcase. With one difference. Being international like them, a traveler in all senses of the word, Lorca hates the Hartmann Standard and seeks out his unlabeled Spanish suitcase from the other side of the world.
Lorca loves Spanish folklore like nobody else. He’s about to make a film about regional customs. Singing, villages, tradition, shows, music. The production house wants Lorca to speak in front of the microphone, explaining every scene, every local variation. And Lorca is unsure. If the film’s good, Lorca will speak.
And Lorca will be happy, face-to-face with Spanish folklore. His extraordinary poet’s sensibility will softly, precisely touch on the fundaments of our traditions, melting itself into Spain’s own sensibility. Lorca, before beginning our chat about New York, said to me:
—The influence of the United States on the world can be summed up in skyscrapers, in jazz, and in cocktails. That’s all. Nothing more than that. And as for cocktails, over in Cuba, in our America, they do things a lot better than the Yanks. Yes, in Cuba, precisely where the North American spirit believes itself to be most powerful.
A reader’s correspondence with Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee’s Here and Now: Letters (2008–2011).
I’ve mispronounced your name a thousand ways. I think I’m finally getting it right.
Yours I haven’t. Called you once about A Tomb for Anatole. More on that later, maybe. It strikes me that already I’ve made reference to myself twice, but perhaps that is fitting. Correspondence is ostensibly dialogue, an intimate interpersonal volley. Thing is, it often feels intra personal, like you’re not playing ball but just dribbling in your own court and then watching someone else do the same. Reviews are ostensibly in dialogue, responding to some other piece of work, or some other artist, and yet they’re always personal, even selfish. As is this. As is your book. Your letters are always a little more fan-maily than John’s, and your sign-offs more affectionate—“yours ever” or “hugs to you”. I write a lot of emails, in part because I’m curious to see the different ways I curate my life as per recipient. It feels like we’re getting a good glimpse of you, a good glimpse of John, but I think maybe I’m only getting a glimpse of the Paul that exists for John. And vice versa. I wonder what you and John want us to gain from seeing each of you as you are for the other.
See me dribbling,
David Groff and Angelo Nikolopoulos’s divergent work centers on the poetics and politics of the gay body.
In his introduction to James L. White’s exemplary book, The Salt Ecstasies, Mark Doty observes: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair,” and later, “it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.”
David Groff unfolds those experiences “bowled over by longing” in his second collection, Clay (Trio House Press). Doty, who picked Groff for the National Poetry Series in 2002, noted Groff’s territory as “at the end of a nightmare crisis but nowhere near the end of an epidemic. How, in such times, to speak?” A decade later, Groff’s territory has grown to a place where he does speak, using Clay, his husband, as the material to mold and shape the ever-changing queer landscape. The intersection of a “normal” life growing old (and married) becomes ultimately queered under the lens of the AIDS epidemic. On this crossroad, Groff’s poetry illustrates that though we might have moved further from the closet, our liberation is no cure, but only a larger landscape in which our queerness continues to morph and redefine itself. As he notes,
This isn’t 1984: the virus, we know, is manageable,
at least if you’re the class of man who strolls
L. Annette Binder on her debut collection, Rise, and the role of myth in her work.
L. Annette Binder’s Rise (Sarabande Books, 2013) is a stunning debut collection that blurs the line between ancient mythologies and modern anxieties, employing fantastical narratives to capture feelings of loss, regret, wonder, and despair. Binder depicts, in achingly beautiful prose, the weirdness of the world, and makes us love the strange people who inhabit it.
I first came across Binder’s work in One Story, which published her Pushcart Prize-winning piece, “Nephilim,” in 2010, a story that charts the inevitable decay of a giantess, Freda, and the desperation of unrequited love. Binder answered my questions by email from Boston.
Amanda Faraone In “Dead Languages,” and several of your stories, I was struck by how the most surreal and poignant moments were not the ones dealing with strange phenomena, but the mundane moments of daily life surrounding them, like a mother taking her child to the grocery store and realizing her own alienation from her son. When you were writing these stories, did you tend to start with the general condition of the characters, or from these moments of loss and alienation? When did it become clear that the collection would be loosely bound by this theme of otherness and the surreal?
L. Annette Binder The starting point really varied from story to story. Some stories began with a general feel for the characters. What would it be like to be a giantess living in her childhood home? Or a man who grows increasingly far-sighted until he can see the distant planets, but not the face of his newborn son? I thought about these characters for weeks sometimes before I started writing.
Katie Peyton on the satisfying artifacts of truth in Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
When asked if we want to know the truth about something, most of us would say yes. We consider the truth to be the morally superior choice and the choice of the strong. Information, after all, is power. We want things represented accurately, researched thoroughly, precisely described.
But what does it mean to seek the truth? To describe something fully, with the closest possible accuracy, or to aim for a digestible reality without too many confusing details—more of a single bite? Does our conditioning render it impossible to experience the same thing twice? And what about those who believe the truth cannot reached by verisimilitude, who strive continually to create something new in order to obliquely approach what really happened?
When I graduated college, those questions were on my mind as my father delivered his parting advice. Like many fathers before him, he quoted Polonius in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” But my father was an engineer, not an English major. He believed in a less heady version of reality. A builder with a mathematical mind, he did not invert word order or say things that were vague or archaic. Did my father really just quote Shakespeare?
I think he meant, “Remember where you come from.” It was funny because at the time, I was in the process of moving as far away from home as possible. I didn’t really know much about New York, but I knew one thing I liked: it was not located in the state of Georgia. Going away, I was hoping to find a better version of myself. Perhaps I was already out there somewhere, twinned and perfected on the corner of 5th and Bowery, a parallel life waiting to be lived.
When I picked up The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, I was hooked by the introduction, which takes place in an airport and concludes with these words:
Each of these stories are true, but only somewhere else.
Eric Dean Wilson on the rushing river of language in Dara Wier’s You Good Thing.
“Here does move more than one would suppose,” writes Dara Wier in You Good Thing, a slim wallop of poems nearly all addressed to a mysterious “you,” which as soon as I feel I’ve pinned, shifts identities. A rushing river connects the poems, each block of text placed as one further hunk of driftwood in an unmanageable stream. I read these poems in one, dizzying sitting, but the poems demand multiple go-rounds, and as I reached the end of one reading, I found myself flipping to the front for another ride down the rapids. Immediately. Here does move—in Wier’s case, fluidly, with dark affirmation.
Following several thin collections and a large Selected Poems with works from ten of Wier’s books over the last 35 years, You Good Thing shows a marked change from the parenthetical poems of Reverse Rapture (Verse Press, 2006) and the longer poems of Remnants of Hannah (Wave, 2006). Each poem is of short, uniform length and shuttles the reader through long lines with conversational force, reminiscent of the breathless poems of Frank O’Hara or James Schuyler, and similarly wields their disconnect between dreaming and waking life: “Say, you’re particularly / Lovely today, little penknife. Big backhoe, we couldn’t live without / You.”
The book opens with a scrawled drawing from Pessoa of “a plan . . . to walk with Ophelia from the office where she worked to where they lived, by the longest possible route.” The drawing looks, at first, like a reasoned thing, a scrap from the geometry notebooks of Euclid, but after trying to make mathematical sense of it (wouldn’t the longest distance be . . . infinity?), I’m at a loss. Clearly, I should approach Pessoa’s curiosity differently. And despite their talkative character, the same goes for the poems in You Good Thing.
Andrea Quaid on love poetry’s lineage in Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Advice for Lovers.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Advice for Lovers (City Lights Books, 2012) opens with “Dedication to Venus” and a proclamation, “I am a love poet, and dedicate all my verses to Love, that god among goddesses, goddess among gods.” Immediately invoking Ovid’s apostrophe to Venus in Ars Amatoria, Brolaski’s poem is one of allegiance and ardor. Issuing an invitation to the reader and student of love, the speaker summons likeminded devotees to follow the poet’s lead and expertise: “herkneth ladings, lordes, if you would love, to these advices.”
The reader’s promised tutelage is twofold, for the newly anointed “disciple amoris” is offered instruction in love and love poetry in all their sacred and profane valences. At once philosophical and sexy, the poet’s enticing edifications assure that the willing pupil will become:
Learnt in all the lossom ways that love is
Lernt in that sweet science of bruising
Which renders lewd, so that at your choosing
You may yet plot to snare your pet
Or blaze thir parts in englyssche, or by your very glance
To hook a hating falconet.
However, in love poetry this list of different ambitions all take place within the poem. The “plot to snare your pet” occurs in verse and meter as much as the plan to “blaze thir parts in englyssche.” Advice for Loverss poetic seduction knowingly occurs via lament, enticement, praise, and reproach. All are come-hithers, all are the “sweet science of bruising,” wholly conjured and lustful and alive in the poetic line.