Jessica Hoffmann and Peter Cochrane discuss Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new memoir The End of San Francisco.
The End of San Francisco is an experimental memoir by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore that explores the limitations of straight and gay normalcy and the recurrent failure of attempts to create something different. Written in an associative, nonlinear style and merging social and personal history, the book documents the loss of a dream of radical queer community in San Francisco. Sycamore is an iconoclastic queer activist and author whose past books include So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and The Desire to Conform, and That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.
Peter Cochrane and I are friends, radical queers who live or have lived in San Francisco, and are both artists/activists/media makers. After talking for years about our personal encounters and struggles with San Francisco’s queer and art scenes, we decided to share a piece of this ongoing dialogue by discussing The End of San Francisco, which is just out from City Lights.
Jessica Hoffman One of the first things we had a real conversation about was our disappointment in San Francisco art scenes.
Peter Cochrane I think that we both had the notion that if San Francisco is this beacon of radical thought and politics, it should/would be reflected in the art. I came to learn about the aura of the city in a slow way—I moved here in 2007 when I was nineteen after a complicated two-year stint in Illinois. I needed a new home, and after being shown San Francisco for a week by a friend, I fell impossibly in love. Amazingly, I didn’t know about the radical ideologies associated with the city when I moved here. My ideas of sexuality and politics expanded with my understanding of the place.
Eduardo C. Corral on the soundtrack to his poetry and his book, Slow Lightning.
Eduardo C. Corral reminds us that when we listen for poetry, it is memory we hear. The “truth” won’t help you write a poem—Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum, “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” applies on each and every page in the mind of Corral. The more autobiographical a poem sounds, the more fictional it is, he says, because it is important to kick yourself out of your usual language habits. This conversation reminded me that poetry doesn’t always sit with or in language; the poets we enjoy and the communities and movements they are associated with are touchstones for poets to enter into the very community of writers they study. The visual iconography of our lives is just as much of a companion to our words and their associative meanings as is a book by our favorite writer.
If we look back at its history, Arizona has never been a place with easy access or privilege to those outside the norm, and yet Slow Lightning does not impose itself like the thorny geography and history of the native state that inspired many of the poems. The collection is both an ode and a Dear John letter to it’s author’s homestate of Arizona.
Yezmin Villarreal Rivera Slow Lightning sets a soundtrack through the sounds of violins, guitars, accordions, and corridos. Are you a musician? What is it about music and instruments that complements your writing?
Eduardo C. Corral I am not a musician. It is one of the skills I wish I had—to play an instrument. I took a year of high school piano but I don’t remember a single thing from that year. I do remember one thing. My teacher had perfect pitch, so each time I played piano, his face contorted in pain. So that tells you right away that I had no musical gifts as a performer of any kind of instrument. (laughter) It’s always been one of my biggest regrets.
In part one of a three part series, Katie Peyton discusses the origins of the Occupy movement in The Occupy Handbook.
Have you heard about Libertatia? I first encountered the story in William S. Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. Burroughs opens the trilogy by stating that “the liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier.”
He is talking about the pirate community founded by Captain Mission along the Madagascar coast. Quoting Under the Black Flag, by Don C. Seitz, Burroughs describes the principles of Libertatia. The citizens were to live “in strict harmony among themselves;” even so, he continues, “a misplaced society would adjudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and not a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who should close their ports to them.”
The ruling principles of one of these communities were called the Articles. According to Burroughs, The Articles state, among other things:
All decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.
Nick Thurston on how Kim Rosenfield’s Lividity and Steven Zultanski’s Agony both convert the long form poem into an act of hyper-objectification, and how both do so to brutally contemporary effect.
In an age of acceleration and over-production, wherein the very ontology of published language has been transformed by its reformation through and as principally-digital data, the most intelligent and imaginative poetic responses seem to have come from the field of so-called Conceptual writing. Basically this is because conceptualist approaches to cultural production demand that “makers” consider what they make in the context of their field or community at the level of social epistemology as well as that of the projective imaginary. That is, the maker-subject recognizes herself as just one producer within a specific community and history of possibilities that are united by some shared concerns (technical, political, economic, geographic, sexual, whatever), and which are in turn embedded in other communities and histories of production. Those maker-subjects re-imagine those shared concerns by holding them together, often in dispute, which means that they don’t have to agree on what those concerns “mean,” but that they do privilege them as a/the problematic(s) for their community of production. The job, then, is to develop that shared problematic(s).
Conceptual writers are writing beyond other communities of literary practice because they’ve taken the risk of advancing the problematic(s) of poetry, whereas other communities of poetic practice (at least the ones who are producing textual fields that we would currently recognize as “poetry”) are failing to even at least sufficiently develop the problematic(s) of poetry in our age. At present, the conceptualist approach to writing (which is something that expands before and beyond so-called Conceptual writing) seems to be exploring what it means for poetic writing to be “contemporary” in the most interesting way right now. And the contemporaneity at stake in this contemporary moment seems to be being shaped by the unprecedented tension between a pair of facts that are perfectly articulated in Kim Rosenfield’s doublet “THE BRUTE MATERIAL OF WORDS. THE BRUTAL MATERIAL OF WORLDS.” (Lividity, p. 165), partly because of what it says and partly because she makes no claim to having said it first.
Luke Wiget on the commanding sounds and biographical narrative in Li-Young Lee’s re-released The Winged Seed.
In The Winged Seed Li-Young Lee gathers up his memories of his mother and father and his childhood and dreams about them. The family’s displacement from China to Indonesia to the United States is reordered in Lee’s memoir in a way that mirrors the tangled process of remembering. For Lee, his father’s spent shoes and exposed ankles and his mother standing for hours at the gate to the prison where Lee’s father was being held are the raw material, the genesis, for a story, that though it is supremely unique, exceeds its own content with its universality. This reissued edition begins with a new foreword by Lee who writes, “Once upon a time, we were children in a river valley, and teachers getting our names wrong helped to keep us hidden, safe to make the most faithful playmates of God and Death. Any wonder, we were ruined for any other company.” This is the echo of idea that Lee spoke of in an interview with BOMB following the initial publication of the book in 1995 when he said, “I can’t stop thinking about love and death; no other issues interest me.” With the addition of God, who at one point Lee refers to as a “monster in [his] eyes,” The Winged Seed is a remembrance of love and death and God.
The 2013 reissue by BOA Editions is the same text as was published in 1995 and had since gone out of print, but now includes a small collection of photographs of Lee and his family as a well as the previously mentioned foreword by Lee himself. For those who have read a lot of Lee’s work it may be a little reductive to see Lee’s father, so mythologized and looked to in Lee’s poems and here in the memoir, confined into a two-by-two inch photograph. To hear Lee’s voice in the present, some 18 years after the book’s initial publication and sounding just as sure and also as shaky, is the real appeal with this new publication. He writes in the foreword, “It’s just time: the book I read, the letter I write, the window I look out of. Just a sleeve I keep trying to mend, the spool diminishing.” Lee’s story is not over, it can’t ever be.
These days, Richard Meyer rarely goes by the moniker that helped make him famous, except, as he recently said in an interview with NPR’s Leonard Lopate, when he’s “making dinner reservations.” At 65, the man known as Richard Hell—a prime mover behind such visionary bands as Television, the Neon Boys, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers—is widely recognized as an originator of the punk movement, but has settled into a more subdued era of his life. Known in the ’70s for his blustery performances, scathing yet poignant lyrics, and particular brand of James Dean-hoodlum-meets-French-intellectual aesthetic, Hell was as ubiquitous as he was prolific. From pioneering new art forms, to mingling with some of the most provocative thinkers and creators of his era (ranging from Susan Sontag to Sid Vicious), Hell has certainly led a life worth reading about.
His new memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp (Ecco) charts Hell’s early years as a young upstart on the downtown scene. From vivid descriptions of his nights at legendary punk club CBGB, to his battles with substance abuse, to his heartfelt and frequently candid asides on relationships with lovers and collaborators, this memoir “attempts to portray things the way they actually were,” exposing a new side of both the artist and the period itself.
Laura Feinstein The obvious question to most people would be “why now?” How did you decide this was the right time to release your memoirs?
Richard Hell I actually needed a subject for a book that I owed, though I think of the end product as being somewhat incidental. That it turned out to be an autobiography that I chose to do for the book that was scheduled, it was just kind of a conjunction of circumstances. But basically I look at as an attempt to write a good book, and the attempt to capture my life came second.
Though it had been something that was sort of percolating in the back of my head for a few years. Less the possibility of writing a book like this, but more curiosity about what my life actually looked like. The kind of curiosity you get when you hit middle age. I think it’s kind of universal. I mean when you hit your 40’s, and your youth is behind you.
Special Powers and Abilities takes its inspiration from a long (and still!) running comic series about super-powered teenagers in a distant future. Through the intricate use of assorted poetic structures or devices, McDaniels investigates everything from teenage love triangles and last stands to mythological parallels and the limits of poetry and comics.
The character Brainiac 5 stands in as both a model of “adolescent geek romanticism” and the figure of the poet; 30th century utopia becomes a counterpoint to our own time, and all the while music runs through the poems with as much spunk as the young heroes themselves.
Ben Pease Special Powers and Abilities has been a constant companion these past few weeks, and it has come at a serendipitous time when I find myself almost exclusively reading poetry and comics. Crisis of Infinite Words! Alright, so my first set of questions has to do with structural elements of the book—in terms of both form and content. When beginning the book, I found the arrangement of poems both magnanimous and exciting: each super-hero gets an introduction (more on these later), and the poems that follow directly involve the characters we just learned about. As the book progresses, a widening variety of types of poems enters the fray: the “What to Expect” poems, the Superhero X Loves/Does Not Love Superhero Y poems, poems that take their titles directly from issues like “Computo the Conqueror!” or “The Doomed Legionnaire!” and so on. What was the impetus behind these many types of poems?
Raymond McDaniel I’m glad the book is good company! I don’t know if anything I’ve ever done has been characterized as magnanimous before but you can bet I’ll be using that in the future. “I found this poem difficult . . . ” “Are you sure? It’s actually magnanimous!”
I think the number of types of poems increases to distribute the burden of the Legion’s unwieldy narrative. In terms of plot and tone, following the chronology ends up both arithmetic and asymptotic. So the types manage that complexity. Rather than throw readers in the deep end immediately, I try to help them acclimate by signaling, via repetition, what kind of thing they are getting. As the book progresses, readers can then accommodate more and more types. I hope.
Of course, the repetition of types also reflects the redundancy of serial comics. Someone will always be falling in love with someone else; members will die; new members will join; the Time Trapper will show up in his purple hooded monk’s robe and cause serious epistemic trouble.
One weekend afternoon ten years ago, I went for a walk through Hell’s Kitchen and wound up in a huge protest against the Iraq War. As I walked east toward Times Square, away from the quiet avenues by the river, I began to see people holding signs and hear chants in the distance, and then, on Eighth Avenue, I found myself in a dense and nearly unmoving mass stretching uptown and downtown as far as I could see, penned in by blue police sawhorses, part of the largest crowd I’ve ever been in. For a few minutes I stayed in the crush, empty-headed and curious. I felt that I was in the wrong place, that the real protest must be taking place somewhere else in this mile-long mass of people. I did not immediately understand that this was it, that there would be no speeches or actions, that the crowd had no intention of challenging the restrictions that the police had set. I did not understand how this was supposed to prevent the invasion of Iraq. The point, I thought, must be the news coverage it would receive. I realized that I had expected newspapers to run front-page headlines on the protests only the next day, when I saw that none had done so; in fact—and though I remember this clearly I wonder if it can really be true—there was no mention of the protest anywhere in the next day’s New York Times.
Nick Earhart on the ghostly discussions in Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group.
At the heart of Ian Svenonius’s witty, incisive new book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is a remarkably simple question, something teenagers have been asking each other for years: How are we gonna start a band? Svenonius, who is a lifer punk himself, playing in groups like Nation of Ulysses and Weird War and host of the Vice TV series Soft Focus, turns to some unusual sources for an answer: dead rock stars, contacted via séance from beyond the grave.
Brian Jones shows up early on. So do Buddy Holly and Mary Wells. Svenonius writes that “the voices of our ghosts are unrecordable, so we hurriedly transcribed their words directly onto the pages of the book.” But the spirits all sound alike, and they all sound like Svenonius. It’s hard to believe Brian Jones would ever say something like “the rules of comportment are always abstract, arbitrary, vague, and more aesthetic than purely logical.” But then, Svenonius makes no effort to characterize his subjects in any meaningful way. Instead they’re interlocutors, giving him some wiggle room to make high-flown arguments about—among other things—the Cold War, selling out, drug use, recording technology, cultural imperialism, and sex.
Svenonius points out again and again that rock ‘n’ roll is as much about ideology as it is music. His argument could be summed up in the conversation with Richard Berry, who wrote “Louie, Louie,” maybe the most essential rock song of all. Berry, his ghost, says, “Since the USA is a nation founded on the ideas of individualism, rebellion, evangelism, white supremacy, black slavery, expulsion of native peoples, expansionism, commerce, and industry, these values all play a part in the formation of the USA’s primary and arguably greatest cultural export.” He is talking about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, its world-shaking power, and its unique ties to the great and horrible threads of American history. It’s the identification with American culture, Svenonius seems to be saying, and the dread and confusion that comes with it, that gives rock music its propulsive force.
Chris Gisonny on the rhythms of language in Peter Dimock’s George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time.
Do Americans lack a language adequate to the history they are living? Peter Dimock believes so, and he explores this issue in his strange and remarkable novel George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, published by Dalkey Archive Press. “Empire and democracy are not compatible,” Dimock writes. “By what narrative logic do we reconcile them?” The more specific question the novel poses is: What is it in our language that has fostered the American public’s complicity with their government’s use of torture despite its violation of international and domestic laws?
Dimock’s novel asserts that Empire’s delusions infuse the very rhythms of our language, which is to say our collective imagination. The US continually demonstrates an eagerness to defend its lofty principles via policies that negate those very principles. But this seems difficult for many Americans to grasp or confront in any meaningful way. In a broad sense this is probably due to what Dimock in his “Author’s Note” deems a “subjective internalization of [a] historical narrative of national triumph”—in other words, a pervasively accepted exceptionalism has crippled the critical thinking capacities of many Americans. The spurious pieties regurgitated endlessly by our pundits and demagogues do not help the situation; forging a collective sense of clarity in this purported democracy appears to be nothing more than the flimsiest of utopian fantasies.
But hold on, put down those cyanide capsules—we may not be completely fucked. Not just yet. The torture, the drones, the secret prisons, the assassinations of American citizens, the reduction of habeas corpus to some quaint, anachronistic custom—this is deplorable, yes, but as George Anderson argues, a true confrontation with Empire first requires us to confront Empire’s contamination of our own minds.
Amy Lawless on the conceptual collaborative nature of Ben Fama’s Mall Witch.
Conceptual poetry has, in the past, made my skin crawl. I used to want to open up a book, approach it from my limited (non-omniscient) perspective, and read it on its own terms. I wanted to think, but was chiefly concerned with the (groan) fascinating bounds of my own mind’s processes as related to a connection with the work I was reading. I figured I’d read criticism or not read criticism later on. This is, of course, naïve. One can never read a book without previous knowledge. Usually, some prime move in your universe caused you to buy, borrow, steal, or even get a PDF of a book. Maybe the author looks kinda hot and do-able in the author photo. Maybe the historical significance of the work caused you a moment of autodidactic-narcissistic-self-flagellation-cum-PayPal-drain. Maybe you respect the press. Maybe you keep hearing a name at lit parties or in that gently annoying banter before a reading. Maybe you see quotes of it Tweeted or posted to Facebook by friends or by people you respect. Maybe your dead mentor told you to read Dryden, and you’re carrying that on your shoulders until you read some Dryden. Maybe you like feminist work. Whatever it is, we move toward things. We are impacted. We glide. We read. We are part of a literary community whether we identify as writers, readers, critics, or a softcore pullulating mix of roles. We ride. But does that context matter? Yeah it matters. It sticks like a burr in your brain and can help you understand the work. You can’t rid yourself of it. Sometimes that context is a history or school of poetics or maybe it’s a series of linked ideas (concept) as expressed in the book Mall Witch.
Tanya Larkin on myth, Emily Dickinson, and being “a latecomer to clarity and plain speaking.”
Tanya Larkin’s poetry alternates between precise meditations and wilder, metamorphic explorations. Larkin’s “Essay on Style” poems demonstrate great focus, canny conceits, and intellectual rigor, but elsewhere her work expands to chart what Dostoevsky’s underground man called a “fever of oscillations,” spiritual agitations that lead to coursing involutions of figuration. Her work is among the best I’ve read in recent years. Her first book, My Scarlet Ways, was the winner of the 2011 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, judged by Denise Duhamel.
I’m reported missing
at the mirror when I think of you,
you suckhole of sincerity, you
glistening knob fallen from
(“The Heavenly Bodies Are Bowls of Fire”)
Gregory Lawless The first poem, “Transport,” in your beautiful debut collection, My Scarlet Ways, moves from wish to vision in what is a fascinating and complex drama of poetic inspiration. The speaker at first wants to be “nature’s one and only / wet nurse,” who “accru[es] voices” of cosmic and terrestrial testimony with her kinetic powers. Later, the speaker follows “wherever / the voices go,” which ultimately causes her to transform into a totemic, “anarchic red snake,” so in love with and “gone into [the] things” of this world that she is marshaled by others, perhaps the voices themselves, who “strap” her to the prow of a ship “for luck” (an image which is repeated in the poem “Prospects”).
This hallucinatory, Ovidian coil of leaps and metamorphoses winds up being something like the autobiography of a heretofore-ignored deity, part visionary confessional, part mythopoetic invocation. Why did you choose this poem, with such a volatile sense of identity and authorship, to begin your collection?
Tanya Larkin It is quite a myth mash—say that 20 times—but with a decidedly female bent, of course. I wrote most of this book while caught in the throes of pretty strong maternal urges, and I can’t help but look at this poem and see myself working out these desires with respect to the larger world and poetry. What do you do with that overwhelming urge if you don’t end up having children? How else can your body be so pleasantly used up?
Sarah Gerard on the calculation of life’s value in Sam Savage’s The Way of The Dog and Joshua Abelow’s Painter’s Journal.
It is surprising that Sam Savage would write a book about a character who has never had a profession—before writing, he worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, crab fisherman, and letterpress printer. What is not surprising is that the protagonist of Savage’s latest novel, The Way of the Dog, is an elderly man reflecting on his lifelong struggle to make art; Savage, himself, published his first novel at sixty-five. Since then, he has gone on to publish four more novels, all of which feature protagonists who are somehow frustrated in their art-making. Like the rest, Harold Nivenson lives alone at the story’s open. Mourning the death of his dog, and the life he had hoped to live but ultimately failed to, he records snatches of thoughts on index cards, hoping that, along with the detritus of his dilapidated mansion and the dusty pieces of artwork left behind by a onetime friend, they will add up to something: a statement of purpose, the legacy of his life. Perhaps, if nothing else, his life will be his art.
While similar in his design, what sets Nivenson apart from the rest of Savage’s protagonists is his seriousness. Unlike Firmin, the titular literary rat who stars in Savage’s breakout novel, or Andrew Whittaker, the rambling, self-absorbed landlord-cum-editor/publisher of his third novel, The Cry of the Sloth, Nivenson’s afflictions are not comical. He is searching and introspective, longing without the levity that lines the rest of his books. Nivenson contemplates suicide, citing many artists (mostly writers) whose lives ended that way: Gertrude Stein (although in reality she did not take her own life), John Berryman, Vincent Van Gogh, and others, including Peter Meininger, a former friend and partner whose career overshadowed Nivenson’s own. But his evaluation seems to be that, as a final act, one’s suicide only carries value insomuch as one’s life has had value. And the question of how to valuate permeates The Way of the Dog.
Though Nivenson dreamt of making his own art, and even attempted to at times, his feeling now, at the end of his life, is that he wasted his time “failing privately as a great artist and succeeding publicly as a minor dilettante, a man locally famous as an art appreciator and utterly unknown as a literary failure.” Whereas Savage’s other protagonists persist relentlessly—arrogantly—in their writing, despite their obvious lack of talent, Nivenson gazes backward from the end of his life over a vast, empty gallery of paintings he never finished and pages he never wrote. Whereas Meininger’s suicide shocked, Nivenson’s would doubtless be forgotten. And without recourse to suicide in his final days, he is left to ask: What has been the meaning of my life? And who has lived it? And what will remain of it after I die?
Teddy Wayne on tween-speak and the titular child star of his novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
While Teddy Wayne’s impressive vocabulary is always on display in his pieces for McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Esquire, and the myriad other publications he has written for, both of his novels have employed protagonists that prevent him from showing off his extensive verbal talent. Instead Wayne shows himself to be adept at narrating from outside his own experience. In Kapitoil, Karim Issar, brand new to the United States, is still learning the difficult idioms and cultural references necessary to fit into the cutthroat business he has chosen. In Wayne’s second novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, the protagonist is an eleven-year-old pop star whose meteoric rise has produced a boy whose premature vocabulary is not only riddled with the colloquialisms of video games and tween culture but also the business-speak of the corporate board room. Jonny’s world is an odd and saddening combination of normal boy things, an exposed celebrity life, and the high pressures of business and marketing in pop music. Despite choosing a narrator with a limited, unique vocabulary, Wayne forces readers to examine their own roles in a culture that creates pop stars and millionaires while providing vulnerable, lovable, relatable, though imperfect characters, all with a good dose of humor.
Alexis Boehmler Can you tell us what the experience of publishing your first book was like as compared with that of your second?
Teddy Wayne For a first book, you have no clue how the world will react and the stakes feel impossibly high. For a second book, you still have no clue how the world will react and the stakes somehow feel even higher. The main advantage to the second one is that you have a better understanding of how the process operates and you’ve built up a readership and reputation that, ideally, can make people take you more seriously.
AB The cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is, as you described it, “shiny, iridescent” and “useful if stranded on an island,” making it quite different from the more staid cover of Kapitoil. Am I sensing mild discomfort with the final cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine? It seems perfect as a representation of Jonny himself, his genre and his market but perhaps not something you want to have to look at every moment for months while promoting it. Or do you like it a lot but have some other covers you can tell us about that you also liked? Finally, were there moments when you felt a bit like Jonny in a one of his record label meetings during the editorial or cover process?
TW I love it, actually—any references to its shininess were in jest. It does feel like an excellent visual metaphor for the book’s subject matter and themes about glitzy packaging; it’s a perfect autocritique. Free Press didn’t show me any of the early covers, but called me into the office so I could first see it, since its full reflectivity is apparent only in person. I was blown away and signed off immediately. At the eleventh hour, they did show some alternate covers that used holographic foil only for the title, and I’m sure if I’d seen it first I would’ve liked it equally, but I was already sold on the original.
AB I was surprised when I started The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and discovered your subject matter. I’m assuming it’s not just that you’re a huge Justin Bieber fan—what inspired you to choose a tween-idol as the protagonist for your second novel?
TW The child star occupies a strange role in America, one that’s growing each year as our culture becomes more infantilized and youth-obsessed. The adolescent celebrity is neither quite a child, nor quite an adult, but occupies some nether region. The same could be said for a number of putative adults in the country, particularly those under 40, who are staving off adulthood as long as possible.
Laura Walker re-arranges the OED’s furniture in her book of poems Follow-Haswed.
The most immediately appealing thing about Follow-Haswed is Laura Walker’s close reading and rewriting of a book that nobody really reads, and that nobody has really written. That said, we’re all intimately familiar with her source text; we quote it every day. Follow-Haswed is a collection of poems that rearrange the furniture within the room of a single entry in the OED’s F-H volume, creating new spaces through which these constricted vocabularies can move. Walker’s impressive refurbishing of each threadbare definition hinges on the liberties she’s able to take within the framework of her rules. An implicit linguistic kinship holds each poem together, allowing the poetry to freely roam and reorient the semantic web. Despite such formal innovation, Follow-Haswed respectably dodges the too-easy pitfall of a self-referential experiment or a monomaniacal interrogation of language. Ironically, innovative forms are too-often inhospitable to the very content that demonstrates the significance of their innovation by inhabiting it. This is especially pertinent with respect to conceptual writing, which constantly risks slouching into the unfortunate posture of the Gimmick. Walker’s poetry doesn’t. On the contrary, the writing can be narrative, slightly lyrical, and coherent in tenor. On top of that, constraints rarely operate as limitations. While each word is tethered to the modest vocabulary that details its use, the poetry strays toward a similar place; it takes on nautical tones, dwells within the vacancy of loss, and addresses the formally relevant idea of containment. Here’s a bit from “furlong”:
a brief space
a road our boundary
the land must be cast into another
a general trench
an equal influence
David Brody follows the trail of interwoven fiction, fact and art in Nabokov, Bruegel, Disney, Eve Sussman, Lech Majewski, and others.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel Laughter in the Dark begins with an art collector daydreaming about financing an animated film that would bring an old master painting to life, a Dutch genre scene of skaters and taverns. The collector Albinus has arrived at this “beautiful idea,” as he calls it, while frequenting the cinemas of Berlin (ill-fatedly, as we’ll see). At the movies Albinus discerns how the popular American cartoon shorts of the day, sequential paintings in effect, furnish a coarse prototype for his moving Dutch landscape—with the difference that Albinus’s film would be ambitiously refined, “movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture.” No ordinary cartoon, Albinus’s animation would map the technique of Mickey Mouse onto the most venerable traditions of art.
Nabokov was a Berliner like his creation Albinus when he began writing a first serialized version of the novel in Russian for the amusement of fellow exiles displaced by the Bolsheviks. Berlin was a capital of cinema, and there Nabokov had become, again like Albinus, a frequent moviegoer. In 1931, the year Nabokov began publishing his serial, a Disney cartoon called The China Plate was released internationally. This black-and-white, non-Mickey graphic narrative takes the form of a looping tableau vivant—in striking correlation to Albinus’s plans for the Dutch landscape. Nabokov might well have seen it; perhaps he made a mental note of this 7-minute romp before settling in for the feature—say, the Greta Garbo vehicle of the same year, Mata Hari. (As we’ll see, Garbo seems to have left her stamp on Laughter in the Dark no less than Disney.) In The China Plate, a pastoral glaze painting adorning the dish of the title brings forth antic Fu Manchu figures (casually racist; intended as charming) who soon come to chase one another, finally coming to rest again as part of the porcelain decoration more or less where they started. Just so, in the quaint winter landscape that Albinus imagines, the figures would arise from their painted stasis to drink, flirt, and skate awhile. As the film concludes, they would slowly arrive back at their eternal poses, “ending it all,” according to Albinus’s daydream, “with the first picture.”
Rebecca Lindenberg on her relationship to form, the “virtuosity of attention,” and her book Love, An Index.
Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg is an emotionally wrenching read. In less than one hundred pages, Lindenberg explores the elemental and complex nature of love in a way that feels expansive. Moments of beauty, despair, and meaning are communicated honestly, wisely, and economically. The poems in this collection appear in a wide range of forms (the short lyric, the index, the illuminated manuscript), which would be confusing if her focus weren’t so tightly on one vital question: What is love and what do we do when the person we love is gone?
This question takes on a special urgency in this case. In 2009 Lindenberg lost her partner, the celebrated poet Craig Arnold. As the collection unfolds so do some of the details of their life together as two young journeymen poets: their moments of conflict, their intense erotic connection, their shared love of words, food, travel. Many of the poems directly address Arnold, and this overheard conversation is part of the intimate quality of the book. There is also a novelistic feel to the way the narrative is woven through the collection. This makes the book hard to put down, though the narrative is never delivered completely or chronologically.
But what really differentiates Love, An Index from other elegiac works is the eponymous long poem at its center, written in the form of an index. The index—a form that is more often dispassionate, arbitrary, and artificial—allows Lindenberg to explore love and grief on many levels simultaneously, and the heartbreak sneaks up on you and then overwhelms you. By choosing the index, Lindenberg seems to be rejecting the notion that an intuitive form exists to tell the story of this relationship, or to speak about love at all. Lindenberg wants to say it all. Or as Lindenberg puts it: ”... I want/ to gather everything into this poems now/ but can’t. All is gloss…”
In semiotics an indexical sign is one that points directly to what it refers to (smoke is an indexical sign of fire). I thought about that as I read and reread Lindenberg’s index. It occurred to me that these poems could be thought of as an indexical sign of the writer’s love and grief, the smoke rising from an intense relationship that ended tragically and too soon. In pointing to the act of trying to gather everything, Lindenberg is able to point more emphatically at what happened and what was lost.
Elizabeth Clark Wessel How did you become interested in the index as a form? Do you know of any other poets who have used the index in this way before? Can you tell me about the process of writing/compiling it?
Rebecca Lindenberg The index suggested itself as a solution to a series of problems. Perhaps the most important is this: I wanted to tell a sustained story, but I did not want to tell it in a conventional narrative form. I am very wary of anything that appears too tidily as a “whole” story. Leaving aside that it’s limited by my own unfortunate subjectivity, my memory is full of gaps and doubts, and I wanted the story to reflect those things. I’m also very ambivalent about the way conventional narratives organize time into a kind of hierarchy of causes and effects, because in fact I think most incidents in a life or a relationship exist in such a complex network of influences, something three-dimensional would be more apt. (I actually experimented with that, too, but I did not have a big enough apartment, or enough tape). Which leads to another problem I had to solve—the unwieldiness of it all. I don’t think the role of the writer is to take the unwieldy and learn to wield it; I think the role of the writer is to exist as candidly and as hopefully (and strivingly) as possible among your own understanding.
Hoa Nguyen on remaining inside mysteries and the alien alphabets of dreams.
Hoa Nguyen’s poems might appear fragmented at first— like pieces of broken china—as in “Bread”: “Next time I’ll crack/more pepper also knead/more cheese in there//(insert involuntary/ psychic activity)//I don’t believe the self-immolation tale/Can’t stay.” But after spending time with one of her books, the pieces of image and story that make up her poems prove to be more particle than fragment, each integral and necessary. The space between these particles is as meaningful as the space between stars. The poems move according to an order that reveals its presence slowly, offering humor and beauty as rewards along the way. Listening in on her particular language, a complex system can be heard at work; a way of being with thought and sensation as fully alive, unpredictable entities.
Nguyen’s lines often economize multiple senses into a single dense unit and feel effortless. Like pomegranate seeds, these poems attract the both the eye and the tongue: “What justice foreigns for a sovereign/We doom in nation rooms” (“Agent Orange Poem”) or “Hold and blow tough as night/Hope-bow tugged tight” (“After Sappho”). A pragmatic streak appears amidst of these jewels. Household errands and everyday vernacular intersect with the ecstatic:
Mash the sea
After stumbling across the work of an anonymous, unknown poet, D. Foy became so enthralled and confused that he couldn’t keep himself from further investigation.
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
I was introduced to Ben Austin, or rather Austin brought himself to my attention, when he followed me on Twitter. His profile intrigued me. It featured no name or picture, just a handle and curiously-named Tumblr site, murooned.tumblr.com, which, once I’d navigated to it, featured nothing but a series of “poems” written by . . . nobody. I scanned the site for the person behind these poems, but found . . . nothing. I didn’t understand.
Looking at these bits of writing on murooned.tumblr.com, it occurred to me that, despite their poetic form, I nevertheless found it difficult to call them poems. Obviously, thankfully, poetry has for a long time had no rules. There’s nothing inherent to any poem by which we can call a poem a poem. Anyone more than a little interested in poetry knows this, and at some point or another has to have encountered a poem that made them wonder, if only for a second, just what it was before them. I certainly have, though until I read Austin’s work, the last was long ago, when the page I’d turned in some anthology was printed with the words of Emily Dickinson.
Like hers, not one of Austin’s poems has a title. None, properly speaking, conventionally speaking, feature a “character” or “person.” None present either an introduction or conclusion, leastwise in the typical sense. None, bizarrely protean as they are, adhere to any obvious logic or follow some plainly discernible course of development. None for that matter adhere to any sort of nonsense or anti-sense or senselessness or absence. And, finally, this being the real kicker, none even display any “poetry.” For all of that, however, or rather, maybe, as a result, each of these little works is somehow disturbing in the best sort of way, each arresting, each ineffably beautiful. The writer’s anonymity, I later realized, was nothing if not appropriate.
Donald Dunbar on the power of language, circumventing systems, and his new book Eyelid Lick.
I don’t know a lot about Donald Dunbar. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet. His bio can only be found in a few places online, including at Fence, who released his first full collection, Eyelid Lick, as the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Prize winner. I do know a lot about Eyelid Lick. I’ve been reading and thinking about it for over a month.
Stylistically, Eyelid Lick is a surreal text whose poetry is anchored by its syntactical coherence. This allows it to be able to diverge and digress, confusing and swapping nouns and pronouns, describing abnormal situations, all while never seeming to really lose the reader.
This is to say that the collection is fun, and that it feels good. It feels like being given a driving tour through someone’s dream, and the dream is continually re-centering and referring back to itself. And the car you’re sitting in is very fast and swervy. And the driver is both dementedly funny and insightfully sincere, and the way he talks to you is refreshing and colloquial and personal and a little bit sensual.
While doing all of this, Eyelid Lick also confronts some rather serious cultural, political, and philosophical predicaments. Through an email exchange, Donald and I were able to discuss some of these issues.
Jonathan Aprea It’s common in your poems for names to change and for one character to be swapped out for another. In “The Exact Same Line,” two characters, “Alicia” and “Dreamer # 3” can sometimes be read as the same person. And in the author’s note, one name beginning with a “C” changes over and over again, and “Fe Hu Chan” is replaced by “you” (the reader). I felt a slight sense of abduction or manipulation, especially when you involve “you,” and this was both exciting and attractive to experience in a poem. Can you talk a little bit about these choices, especially your direct inclusion of the reader?
Donald Dunbar Language is mind control. We don’t get the choice to hear what we want to—if someone’s talking, our brain is processing it—and by reading a thing we’re surrendering our mind to the system of meaning the author has arranged. This doesn’t mean that we’re not able to later make decisions about what’s being said, but that analysis happens at a much higher level than the initial processing of things. We naturally feel everything we hear or read. Using the second person just makes this more explicit.
“He takes pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier on the reader than, “I take pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier than, “You take pleasure in torturing puppies.” In each of these we’re still processing the same information—puppies are still being tortured—and we understand the torture is fictional, but when we’re signaled to process information in relation to ourselves, our tendency is to do it.
Matthew Daddona on the catharsis and circumvention in Leah Umansky’s Domestic Uncertainties.
When we think about revision—literary, personal, moral, otherwise—a clutching version of self converges with the outside world. It is how two distinct vocabularies merge, and whether elegiac, profound, magnanimous, or gleeful, it is nonetheless a beautiful and necessary allegiance. As Leah Umansky writes in her creative debut collection of poetry, Domestic Uncertainties, “I was the transfiguration,” a testament to not just the individual as the purveyor of compounded emotions but the author as its carrier and intelligible accomplice.
Domestic Uncertainties is not apprehensive about its message. At the forefront is the fictionalized trajectory of Umansky’s real-life divorce, but what arises is how a writer (in the most ubiquitous sense) can integrate the autobiographical and make herself better for it. In the book’s first part, thoughts, accusations, and annoyances are rushed into the overlooked, domestic spaces of married life, “Past the memory; past the dream,” as written in the opening line of “The Marital Space.” For Umansky, coping is sidling idealistic phrases and reveries into the margins. But even more important is doing so to convert them into more practical and vital forms, rendering them as self-confident, aware outpourings. She writes, “I stood, unafraid/ I stand now, unafraid.” Repeated phrases unabashedly unfold and improve upon themselves—they become literal and psychological ponderings, a type of marital subversion of double-blind theory of which there is a clear authoritative winner (hint: it’s the author). Language, then, must be revised in order to keep up.
Brando Skyhorse peels away layers of presumed identities and discusses recent books about Native Americans.
Book publishing: one year, a flood of similar books about a single subject. 2010 was a big Native American year. 2011 and 2012, ebb tide.
Jeffrey Ostler. The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. Penguin Library of American Indian History.
Ostler gives an overview of the Lakota Indian claim upon the Black Hills of South Dakota. The author argues an historical right and a contemporary presence: “Writers have portrayed Wounded Knee as the last event in the so-called Indian wars . . . . Wounded Knee was an unfathomably traumatic event, but it did not signify the end of the Lakota people, nor did it usher in their resignation to permanent subjugation.”
Heather Cox Richardson. Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. Basic Books.
Richardson renders an economy that made the wartime tragedy, which shocked the nation, a foregone conclusion. Wounded Knee’s final chapter tracks the life of Dr. Charles Eastman, of a Sioux heritage that often went unnoticed, who passed verdict on his life experience: “When I reduce civilization to its lowest terms, it becomes a system of life based upon trade.”
Poet Raphael Rubinstein transforms Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style into a numerical formula.
99: Number of exercises in the original edition (1947) of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.
28: Number of additional variations by Queneau, available in English for the first time in the edition just published by New Directions. The original 99 are taken from in Barbara Wright’s 1958 translation; Christopher Gordon Clark rendered the 28 new additions.
10: Variations commissioned by New Directions for this edition from contemporary authors, including, among others, Jonathan Lethem, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, and Frederic Tuten.
137 (in case you aren’t keeping track): Total number of exercises in this book.
3: Number of main characters in the book (a peevish young man with a long neck, another older male bus passenger, a friend of the young man’s), none of whom is named until the very last word of the 99th exercise.
Kurt Hollander discusses his book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City.
Kurt Hollander, a native New Yorker who was well known for publishing the Portable Lower East Side (PLES) magazine from 1983-1993, arrived in Mexico more than 20 years ago just to learn Spanish and to have a good time. He got married, had children, owned a billiard room and a bar, published the art magazine Poliester, directed the movie Carambola, then when everything seemed to be going great, became very ill and watched as his business empire crumbled. An ugly case of salmonella and the ensuing severe chronic ulcerative colitis turned his life around and made him think seriously about his own mortality. That led him to write Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City. We met at a coffee house on First Avenue where he only drank a tiny bottle of Italian apricot juice. He seemed tired, but once he started talking about his book, his energy level rose.
Naief Yehya What influenced you to embark on such a vast and strange piece of literature?
Kurt Hollander The book started as a series of articles I wrote for the London Guardian. One was about a trip to Tepito [the center for pirated goods and a criminal stronghold of the city] where I found my film for sale months before it was released, another was on speed bumps, or topes, in the streets of Mexico City, and another on the demise of the old city morgue. But then I realized that I was really writing about death and that there was much more to write about. The first chapters I wrote were “Air” and “Water,” and then I added “Food” and “Alcohol.” I tried to do a very serious study of how these elements were involved in death in Mexico City, how the toxic substances and parasites within them were the major contributing factors to death in the city. I told the history of these elements since before Aztec times through the conquistadores up until the modern age.
NY Air, water, food and alcohol are body invaders.
KH The main causes of death in Mexico City are heart, liver and circulatory diseases, and cancer. The major contributing factors to all those diseases are the air, water, food, and alcohol in the city—the toxic substances and microorganisms they contain. What I basically found as I was writing the book is that it’s actually the city that kills people because it concentrates huge amounts of toxic substances and parasites and exposes people to them. When I moved to Mexico City in 1989, the city had one of the most polluted environments on earth. Decades ago the city became so overpopulated that the environment couldn’t absorb all the waste materials from industry, cars, and human activity, and toxic substances became an integral part of the city and part of the people in it. Because we are all permeable, the environment invades people’s bodies. The way people die historically is from parasites and diarrhea, but today the city itself turns out to be the leading cause of death in Mexico City. To understand how people die today, I really had to go back to the roots. I wrote a historical guide to death in Mexico City to introduce the larger issues of death within the culture (disasters, conquest, the Inquisition, etcetera), but then focused on the particulars.
Miranda Field and Julia Guez have been corresponding since January 2010. This is the transcript of their conversation which touches on insomnia, motherhood, and “living on the wrong side of the river.”
Miranda Field published a first full-length collection just over ten years ago. After a “journey-into-things-other-than-poetry,” she is writing again.
Field and I meet face to face, for the first time, at OST, a relaxed café around the corner from my East Village apartment, not far from where Field lived when she was around the age I am now—“barely even beginning to think seriously about poetry, let alone motherhood.”
Like many of the contributors to the vital Not For Mothers Only anthology (Fence Books, 2007), Field has received some attention for the ways she has since learned to reconcile the demands of both parenting and cultural production. To borrow from Alicia Ostriker’s introduction to the anthology, it is very clear to me how Field’s life and work “bespeaks both the power of maternity in bending us to its will, and the power of the artist to resist-while-submitting.”
In our first conversation, though, sitting on a pea-green sofa in a sun-washed window overlooking Avenue A, we didn’t speak about poetry or motherhood. We talked about fallow time. We talked about health and sickness, publication, and travel. We talked about small presses, feminism, and the sacredness of a well-made cortado.
Though she has, in her own words, “kind of gone underground in the last ten years,” Field has maintained a quiet but forceful and enduring presence in the poetry world. She has been cited by other poets as an influence, both poetic and otherwise. In a recent essay called “A Curious Thing: Motherhood, Confidence and Getting the Work Done,” the poet, Lynn Melnick, recounts a conversation with Field (with whom she shares a fierce commitment to reinforcing how “being a mother and being a writer are two things that can happen in the same woman”).
Years ago, long before I could imagine ever being a mother, my friend Miranda Field, a superb and accomplished poet and mother, spoke to me about what it was like to be both of those things. Her oldest was still a baby at the time and she said that, against popular wisdom of sleeping when one’s baby sleeps, she wrote during his naps, because it was a do-or-die situation. After years of non-productivity, she had to make a conscious decision to either write or not write, to be a writer or not be a writer. If she didn’t write during her baby’s sleeping hours, then she would never write, and she would not be a writer.
Since January 2010, Miranda Field and I have been corresponding about the writing life via email. We have been talking about Swallow and Foxglove. We talk about motherhood. And conversationally we have continued to “journey-into-things-other-than-poetry.” We talk about sleep. We talk about Hokusai, translation, and homesickness, among other things. What follows is a transcript of the conversation that has been evolving over the last thirty-six months.
Nick Thurston considers some unavoidable problems with reading Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish poet-gardener, seriously as a poet.
In my view, all of my work, in all of its forms, from the simplest concrete poems to the war with Strathclyde Region, has been based on an aspiration for ordered simplicity. (In such a light do I see Saint-Just and Robespierre; in such a light, equally, do I decry Danton.)
—Letter to Francis Edeline, 2 October 1988
The off-center centerpiece in Tate Britain’s current Duveen Gallery display of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay is a 7.3m long text-only engraving across six bath stone panels, which reads: “THE WORLD HAS BEEN EMPTY SINCE THE ROMANS” (made with Nicholas Sloan, 1985). Suspended on chains from a scaffold rig set at the baseline of the barrel-vaulted ceiling on the towering inside wall of one of the two neoclassical gallery halls, these high hanging fragments are buttressed into sequence like an archaeological reconstruction looking down, imposingly, at anyone willing to read them literarily. This one declarative phrase is suspended in space and time and conviction, as if it had been written by and/or for some bygone society whose superiority the poet wished to restate or even resurrect. The modal intensity and literal breaking of classicism’s truth claim—that a certain virtuous civility is the social consciousness by which the human world could exercise, or at least realize, its full potential, so as to fulfill “being human” as a socio-virtuous project—keenly represents the three unavoidable problems with reading Finlay seriously as a poet.
Writer Zadie Smith and graphic novelist and illustrator Chris Ware looked at old snapshots at the New York Public Library on December 11, 2012. Read an excerpt and then listen to their conversation here.
Paul Holdengräber It is my pleasure to welcome back Zadie Smith for the third time. The first time she delivered just about the most remarkable Robert Silvers Lecture, “Speaking in Tongues,” the second time I interviewed her here for her book Changing My Mind, and today she will speak with Chris Ware, who is LIVE for the first time at the New York Public Library, but I hope not for the last. The excitement for me tonight is great. And the sadness also is great, because whenever there is a season that ends I am very sad. But it’s mainly excitement, and the main excitement is I do not know what will happen. I really do not know what Zadie Smith and Chris Ware will do onstage. I will discover that with you and I cannot wait. For having the idea of bringing them together, I would like to thank Mariel Fiedler, who works on the staff here at LIVE from the New York Public Library. Mariel Fiedler, many many thanks. What I do know is that Zadie and Chris will converse and after the conversation will take some good questions. Questions take about fifty-two seconds to ask, I’ve discovered. Then they will sign books and help us bid farewell to the LIVE from the New York Public Library fall season till we start again at the very end of January.
For the past seven years or so, I’ve been asking guests, talent I invite, to give me a biography in seven words, and, for the first time, both Chris Ware and Zadie Smith declined my very kind and generous offer. (laughter) So I only have four words plus three to offer to you, which is Zadie Smith, Chris Ware Building Stories together. Please welcome them.
(Smith and Ware refer to old snapshots, projected behind them, throughout.)
Zadie Smith Can I ask you a few questions first, before we zip along?
Chris Ware Sure, if you want.
ZS I was just wondering about the way you drew as a child. I was thinking of that Crumb documentary and watching those boys obsessively go over the comic books again and again, almost instinctive copying, they don’t really add anything, they just do the same thing over and over. It’s interesting to see with the Crumbs, that Robert at some point pulls ahead in some way, or he’s able to move into a next stage, and the brothers keep obsessively copying and I wondered what your experience was.
Poet Jena Osman on the influence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the modes of looking in her poetry.
Last month, at the Poetry/Performance symposium at Amherst College, Jena Osman was scheduled to perform a poem/lecture called Public Figures which ruminates on public sculpture in Philadelphia. The preceding lecture, “The Unbearable Politeness of Poetry Readings,” painted a dismal portrait of the current state of the live poetry reading. As the Q&A began, Jena chimed in from the audience, asking if the presenter had seen Susan Howe read, or Kamau Braithwaite read, and rattled off a rolodex of memorable readers and poets who blend mediums to create an engaging live experience. Following a short intermission, she took the stage, and proved her point. Public Figures, begun in 2003, originally presented as a slide lecture in 2006, and released in book form by Wesleyan this fall, melds poetry with history, found material with observational humor, lecture with political activism, and whets these disparate elements to arrowhead sharpness. On December 15, she read at PeopleHerd’s Readings at Milk&Roses, and we spoke in the days leading up to the event.
Patrick Gaughan The book features a second vocabulary running across the bottom of the page like a news ticker, which reads as radio communications by soldiers during field operations. These fractured conversations function as a constant hum of muffled war under your excursions in Philadelphia, and eventually competes and merges with the body of the text, a hum we can no longer ignore. This aspect is absent from the original lecture, so how did the typographical demonstration of this idea come about?
Jena Osman When I started to adapt the piece for the page, I found that part of the liveliness of an informal presentation suddenly got very still. I couldn’t include most of the news photos and photos I had taken of people on the street because of space concerns and permissions issues. The piece started to feel linear and stodgy, and I wanted something to add dimensionality and complicate the ideas further. I kept thinking about modes of looking, and at the time I was obsessing over the mechanics of drone warfare. It still seems so unbelievable to me that someone can sit at a screen and “play” war like a video game, even though concepts of warring and gaming have always been intermixed. So that voice running along the bottom of the pages functioned as a stand-in for the remote pilot looking at infrared aerial images on his screen and then aiming and killing with a series of keystrokes. The text is transcribed from YouTube videos—missions where there is video of night combat being narrated by remote pilots conducting the action. Since I had to let go of the news imagery I was using in the previous version of the piece, this transcription is what puts present-day soldiers in proximity to the historical depictions of war heroes.
Kathleen Alcott on adolescence and her novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.
Kathleen Alcott’s debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, jumps out in a field of exceptional 2012 debuts for its formal risks, its warm humor, and its investigation of psychological hinterlands that, in my eyes, are incredibly difficult to get right on the page. Dangers tells the story of Ida and Jackson, best friends and (later) lovers who share a kind of intimacy most people never experience. They grow up together, learn the world together, and in many ways, are one another. Their love is profound, and their individuation, when it comes, is a sad and painful thing.
I talked to Alcott about coming of age stories, how images tap into old emotions, and about what comes next for a young writer with a great debut under her belt.
Patrick Somerville So Kathleen: I wanted to start by telling you that The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets stirred up at least a half-dozen very old childhood memories for me—memories that I hadn’t revisited for a decade, maybe more. A friend, for example, slipping and falling on the ice, and breaking his teeth, and me waiting there with him, his face all bloody while he cried, after his brother ran home to get his parents. Here’s another: two girls in my driver’s ed class who sat near me, but who were from a different school, and their presence in the class made every Tuesday night into an adventure of anticipation and excitement, despite the content of the class. I can’t for the life of me figure out a) why those particular memories suddenly came back to me (there are many more), and in such a rush, or b) what it was about your novel that so thoroughly activated these memories. What did you do to me? Is it just that you know something special about adolescence, and it’s a part of this book? And more: can you tell me about remembering, and what fiction is relative to the memories of the person reading?
Kathleen Alcott Let me say, first, that I’m so incredibly sorry to bring you back to your driver’s ed classroom. (On a side note, I had a driving instructor named, no joke, Carl Carlson, a twenty years sober Charlie’s Angel ex-con, who told me once that driving stoned versus driving drunk was “ . . . Darlin’, just like switching seats on the Titanic.” I never forgot that.)
Tim Seibles on teaching, privacy, and his National Book Award nominated Fast Animal.
Tim Seibles is among the rare literary talents whose work is alive on and off the page. In fact, he’s out of this world. If Tim was an X-Man, he would be Iceman. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where he hones his skill and powers to defend humanity.
Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in 2004, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, “For Brothers Everywhere” (from his second collection Hurdy-Gurdy), Tim compared the streetballers to “ . . . muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.” Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy-Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.
Alan W. King First off, I want to congratulate you for being a National Book Award nominee for Fast Animal. How did you celebrate?
Tim Seibles I had dinner with a few friends that was sort of a celebration. But it was no big official thing. We just went to a nice restaurant.