Sarah Gerard on the experience of language in Clarice Lispector’s recently translated fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H.
“Though the ether is filled with vibrations the world is dark. But one day man opens his seeing eye, and there is light.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Clarice Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, broke the world of Brazilian publishing wide open with a signature stream-of-consciousness style and won the Graça Aranha Prize for the best debut novel of 1943. By the end of her short life (she died at 56 of cancer), she had penned nine novels, nine collections of short stories, five books for children, and numerous articles, essays and interviews, including “Cronicas,” a weekly column written for Brazil’s leading newspaper. However, it was her fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H., recently republished by New Directions with a translation by Idra Novey, which Lispector claimed “best corresponded to her demands as a writer.” In it, she tells the story of G.H., a dilettante sculptor in Rio de Janiero, whose experience crushing a cockroach causes a crisis of boundary, meaning, and identity from which she fears she may never recover.
Though The Passion According to G.H. was first published in 1964, an English translation of the book didn’t appear until 1988. In his introduction, translator Ronald Sousa explains the difficulty of interpreting a work of such wrought complexity.
Where does literature end and philosophy begin? Intellectually speaking, that question is an easy one to answer: they both end in “language,” which for Lispector is the medium within which such designations as “literature” and “philosophy” are made, as well as the medium in and through which alone anything nonlinguistic can be reached. The problem is that for her language is also fallacious unless it is pushed to its limits and thereby made to reveal what, in its structuring as a container, it seeks to hide.
Adam Robinson and Sheila Heti on the profound sex and moral imperatives in Heti’s new novel How Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, released June 19th by Henry Holt, is a book that does many things, is many things, fills many spaces, behaves differently than other books. Heti balances the story with art theory and comedy and self help, sociological insight and philosophy, like a Canadian Mark Twain. Her prose is witty, light, and inviting, and the sections of the book—acts, as they’re laid out like a play—change quickly. The structure calls for acrobatic reading, for easy attention that is as nimble as the writing.
The story follows a character, named Sheila, as she struggles to find authenticity in her art and her relationships. She starts a complex friendship with a brilliant painter named Margaux and entwines herself in a hot and profanely profound sex life with a man named Israel. Her friends have a contest to see who can paint the worst painting. Sheila gets a job at a hair salon, goes to clown school, takes drugs. She travels a lot, and worries that her hopes will leave her forever dissatisfied. All throughout, she tries and fails at writing a play, and reflects on what it means to be great, or good, or whatever it is a person is supposed to be.
Adam Robinson Can I refer to you interchangeably with the novel’s “Sheila” character?
Sheila Heti Sure. I don’t care. They’re not the same thing, but I don’t care.
AR Can you point to some of the ways they are different?
SH That is like seeing a ventriloquist with a dummy on their hand with a hideous plastic face that’s modeled after their face and you ask the ventriloquist, “In what way are you different from the dummy on your hand?”
Eric Amling and Jon Leon on the bi-coastal, patio lifestyle of Leon’s new book of poetry The Malady of the Century.
My sister worked in a video store down the street from our house in south Brooklyn. It was during my formative years when I dreamed of straight-to-video actresses, the VCR tracking warping the starlets’ bodies into video gamma mutations, the soundtracks having a feigned sensitivity. There was simply money, bodies, and freedom. The moments that occur in that cinema bring to mind the work of Jon Leon. When you are reading his work, there is a soft lens over the page. The shock value is muted by the blasé delivery. But in his work are powerful strobes of truth, the sobering realities from a showman.
Leon’s debut full-length work The Malady of the Century was released in May by Futurepoem. A collection of poetics he would refer to as the “Waste Wave.” A work that showcases a world of pleasure principles. A work that exudes a hypnotic void. Inside this void there is a light that pulses, emanating from this book.
Eric Amling On a flight to Chicago the day after your book launch reading with Wayne Koestenbaum at Envoy Enterprises, I read The Malady of the Century while climbing altitude over Amish Pennsylvania. I was looking at the singular roads through the vast green. I started thinking how your work is majorly coastal, liquid. The urban coast life can be attractive, destructive and inspiring to many, and in The Malady you can see why. Is this something of value to talk about?
Jon Leon Absolutely, that bi-coastal, patio lifestyle, if you will, is a primary motif throughout the book; throughout my entire oeuvre. It’s only attractive to the limit that anything out of reach is potentially attractive. Within the context of The Malady of the Century, that lifestyle isn’t out of reach; it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s not solely about desire. The sequences within the book are about showcasing an experience that isn’t often read about in contemporary poetry outside of Frederick Seidel’s work. Poetry doesn’t reach the very particular luxury-conscious set that is navigating art and culture right now. I aimed to give a voice, through vignettes and prose poems, to that set. In The Malady of the Century, more than any of my other books, I wished to present poetry as a poetic way of life—a life of leisure, pleasure, and thought—refreshed by the very seas by which we lounge. It isn’t excess, it’s largesse and the boredom that follows it. No one actually self-destructs in the book, they just become conditioned by the malady.
Patrick Somerville and Lauren Groff chat about hallucinatory feelings and Groff’s new novel Arcadia.
Having missed each other by a few years in the University of Wisconsin’s English Department—Lauren Groff went to graduate school there, and I haunted the same hallways as an undergraduate half a decade before—she and I decided this spring that it was time to properly realign the chronologies of fate and double-interview one another about writing, monsters, babies, and bourbon. We both had books on the way and it seemed like a rather pleasurable way to use up several hours. The following is that conversation; it was conducted via Google Docs, its two participants often huddled in different hotel rooms across the country. It felt like it was conducted via Badger Bowl back in Madison.
And I would be remiss if I failed to point out that since we began this conversation, Lauren’s new novel Arcadia has been raved about in virtually every imaginable venue, and for very good reason. There’s a mysterious electromagnet built into exceptional novels, isn’t there? Built of whispered conversations below the conversations, constructed by the quiet confidence of an authorial intellect so sharp and strong that it has to make a world for itself. She will be embarrassed that I’ve said this, because that’s just how she is, but anyone who’s read Arcadia knows that it vibrates with that special, hard-to-pin-down power.
Patrick Somerville Lauren, to begin: since I last saw you at AWP in Chicago, I have been haunted by your choice to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the final round of Karaoke Idol, the conference’s most undignified literary event. Eight weeks out from the competition and looking back, do you feel angry about taking second place? Do you blame the judges, who had been drinking bourbon for several hours at that point?
Lauren Groff What are you saying? That I lack dignity? Please. I raise my pinkie finger to sip my tea when I’m alone. “Sweet Caroline” was clearly strategic, you know. By that ridiculous time of the night I’d lost whatever terrible voice I’d started with, and I wanted people to sing so loudly they couldn’t hear me. It almost worked! Jump-dancing was the only way to go. I mean, why take yourself too seriously? Besides, I also knew I couldn’t match Ben Percy’s insane rumble-of-God voice, so I went the transparently crowd-pleasing direction. Which makes for bad literary fiction but not terrible karaoke. Anyway, you were a judge: are you angry with yourself for choosing Percy over me? Truly, you should be.
Greg Oden obsessive and avante-rock legende Neil Michael Hagerty chats up Jay Ruttenberg, editor of The Lowbrow Reader Reader.
Hi! I’m Jay Ruttenberg, editor of the comedy zine The Lowbrow Reader and its brand new book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader, to be published with great fanfare by Drag City Books on May 22. [Neil Michael Hagerty: Seems good so far, it’s good to promote yourself positively when no one else will. Maybe add a few more exclamation points. The “get” here is that we want the reader’s sympathy.] Recently, I took part in the below dialogue with one of the anthology’s most prolific contributors, Neil Michael Hagerty, who was recently interviewed by BOMB about his musical work in the Howling Hex, Royal Trux, and Pussy Galore. The editors of BOMB asked Drag City’s publicist to ask me to ask Neil to write an introduction; Neil asked me to do it, instead. That certainly seems journalistically inappropriate—and yet here I stand, an impartial observer. [NMH: Smart move to shift the blame here. It doesn’t hurt that your writing style is as brittle as Greg Oden’s knee.]
So allow me to state unequivocally that The Lowbrow Reader Reader is a Pulitzer-worthy canon of comedic essays, sharp illustrations, and rip-roaring interviews with the famous and the demented. If you read it and fail to laugh out loud, you are probably a racist. There is a long list of ridiculously talented writers and illustrators whose work is featured within the book’s pages, from David Berman to Shelley Berman. And those are just the people whose names are “David” and “Shelley.” Besides myself, however, the byline that recurs most frequently belongs to Hagerty, who contributed to “Lowbrow Reader #1”, in 2001, up through the most recent issue. [NMH: Again, good, staying positive; maybe move my name closer to the words “Pulitzer Prize”—let’s use a little neuro-linguistic programming like psychologists. Let’s try to normalize the association of “Pulitzer” with “Lowbrow.” We don’t want to push it too far, of course. That’s what happened with Greg Oden, the team psychologists pushed too hard on him and he got paranoid that they were telling his secrets to the owners.]
Jack Christian talks to Ben Kopel about Victory, an energetic, noisy book of poetry which turns it up to 11.
Ben Kopel’s Victory comes to readers as a collection of poems rooted deep in the artistic life-force. Their energy is their singularity. It is what causes their swerve. Likely many poets who have grown up with rock-n-roll can relate to the desire to make a poem that works like a guitar-anthem, or really that works not like the words the singers sings, but the noises he howls. That Kopel sets out to do this might not be particularly remarkable—he’s not the first to want to—but the way that he succeeds, over and over again, in various measures and phrasings, through seven sections of poems in this debut album, is what I’ve come to see as the victory implicit in Victory.
When I listen to a rock-god sing his or her guts out, then, later when I see the lyrics printed somewhere, I’m susceptible to a disappointment where the power of the voice seems not to be matched by the words sung. Kopel has written the words that I always wished were in the songs. These poems do a magical thing; they don’t fool around with aspiring.
Jack Christian How did the poems in Victory come together? What did you tell yourself were the parameters of the project? What did you think about as you tried to organize them?
Ben Kopel Victory was written over a five-year period, but it wasn’t until about two years into it that I even realized it was becoming something resembling a book. Some people have very specific ideas and instincts in place when they sit down to write. There is a whole to be achieved, and they sit and they write their way towards it. Others just write sixty to eighty pages of material, and ZAP! it’s a book. I’m personally situating myself somewhere in the middle.
Ashley McNelis on Héctor Abad’s memoir, Oblivion.
Renowned Colombian journalist Héctor Abad’s Oblivion, a memoir on his father, Héctor Abad Gómez, is an honest and thorough reflection on a man’s life from his son’s perspective that also considers the private sphere of the family and the political turbulence in Colombia in the 1980s. His father, a public figure who, in addition to being a progressive university professor and a human rights and union organizer, opened the Colombian Department of Preventative Medicine and the National School of Public Health and served as an ambassador to Mexico.
Although the unresolved tragedy to come is hinted at, the memoir is more a celebration of his father’s life and progressive work than the reactionary political turbulence that brought it to an end; in 1987, Gómez was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries in broad daylight. For decades beforehand, tensions between the conservative and liberal parties flared violently despite many governmental actions such as the creation of the National Front where power between the two parties was passed back and forth. In the 1970s and ’80s, right-wing paramilitary groups’ cartels—including the cartel that reigned over the city of Medellín, the city in which the Abad family lived—reigned and terrorized the nation.
The clarity with which Abad writes is one that can only come with time and perspective after such a tragedy and years of journalistic and novel-writing experience. Abad, the only boy in the family, had an especially close relationship with his father. His mother and several sisters were more religious and traditional, while Gómez based his thought on the rationality and knowledge taken from books. In a way, they were best friends; Abad even relates that he found separating himself from his father difficult and painful in the early years of his adult independence.
Julia Guez on the motion and modulation in Carl Phillips’s book of poetry, Double Shadow.
“Nothing to say about the texte de jouissance,” according to Roland Barthes. “You can’t talk about it, you can only talk ‘within’ it, on its own terms.” This, I think, is a useful way to approach Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Double Shadow.
Phillips’s verse is difficult to excerpt, though. (It is almost impossible to excerpt sparingly). There are plenty of gems, of course, plenty of individual lines whose phrasing seems absolutely non-fungible.
That said, the real force of the poetry is not most apparent on the level of the line (no matter how beguiling the line may be). The real traction is in the movement within and between stanzas that create enough room to enact the “back-and-forthing” of the mind.
Unlike a more static texte de plaisir, Katherine Kurk succinctly defines the texte de jouissance as “a dynamic construction which emphasizes a verbal action and which delights in the bliss of the textual reader/writer exchange.”
Elizabeth Clark Wessel chats with Forrest Gander and Kyoko Yoshida, the translators of Kiawo Nomura’s book of poetry Spectacle & Pigsty.
This spring Omnidawn is publishing Spectacle & Pigsty, a full-length collection of poetry by Kiwao Nomura, one Japan’s most prominent contemporary poets. The wild, associative poems of Kiwao Nomura upend any narrow expectations we might have of Japanese poetry. They wallow in the grotesque mysteries of the self (what Nomura calls the “pigsty I”), and are deeply informed by both continental philosophy and Japanese literary history (“circling the vacancy called vacancy,/or as if/vacancy while staying vacancy transcends vacancy”). They also have a driving, performative energy that has helped them to transcend language barriers when Nomura performs abroad.
Nomura has been lucky in his translators. Forrest Gander and Kyoko Yoshida have brought his poems into English with intense musicality and deft shifts in tone and register. Recently, I corresponded with the two of them to find out more about this fascinating collection by a poet who obviously deserves to be better known.
Elizabeth Clark Wessel How did you first discover Kiwao Nomura’s work? What drew the two of you to this project? Did you know from the beginning that your collaboration would result in a full-length book?
Forrest Gander While Kyoko was a visiting scholar at Brown University, we had many conversations about contemporary literature. I told her of my interest in the poetry/post-poetry of Gozo Yoshimasu, whom I had been able to bring to Brown University to perform two years earlier. Kyoko thought that if I was a fan of Gozo’s work, I would probably like Kiwao Nomura, a poet whose work I had never encountered. So it was Kyoko’s knowledge and generous resourcefulness that turned me onto Kiwao’s work, which of course she had to begin to translate in order to show me. A year into our co-translating, she passed along to me some translations of Kiwao Nomura that Michael Palmer had made, with an unacknowledged co-translator I presume, in a small chapbook.
I first encountered poems from Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire in an issue of the electronic journal Triple Canopy, where the poems stood alongside the video art of Adam Shecter as “Forecasts.” The videos were spun and crackled under heavy filters. The poems fast-forwarded me into a future which might have been similarly disorienting, but was so deftly rendered that the confusions felt familiar, the technologies not a distraction from but a sounding board for the familiar, resonant noise of human relationships. Exploring the rest of the book led me into two other landscapes, both just as well-drawn and as mysterious. Over the western frontier of the United States, an industrial city in China, and an imagined future state of California, Cathy makes narratives flash and craze like heat lightning. This spring, she was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Elsbeth Pancrazi Engine Empire has a few different settings—the American West, present-day industrial China, the future in California—all of them frontiers. How did you begin to think in terms of frontiers? I’m curious about whether you deliberately set out in this direction, or realized at some point that it was a preoccupation.
Cathy Park Hong I’ve always been preoccupied with the frontier. It’s such an American trope first of all. And I like to think of the frontier as being on the borders of language, body, and land. Lyn Hejinian wrote, “the border is not an edge but rather their very middle—their between; it names the condition of doubt and encounter—a condition which is simultaneously an impasse and a passage, limbo and transit zone.” My poetic consciousness rests in that transit zone.
Adam Levin’s Hot Pink is a sad collection, tempered with profound humor and unexpected depths.
Vibrating, needy, deliberately brilliant—one could read Adam Levin’s Hot Pink as a product of a culture obsessed with instant validation. In this three-ring circus of capitalized paragraphs, annotated chapters and hyperactive storytelling, his overanxious characters yearn for applause. But it is in the silent moments between acts, after the verbal somersaults have been turned, that Hot Pink really shines, showcasing the work of an author who understands the heartbreaking potential of our desire to be liked.
Because I was traveling abroad at the time of the book’s release, my first exposure to Hot Pink took place digitally via a decidedly wack-ass version of Kindle for people who don’t actually have a Kindle. Levin’s of-the-moment prose in a behind-the-moment format proved to be a psychosomatic exercise in exhaustion. I wanted to linger in his compassionate humor but found that I couldn’t. On the screen, everything was pulsing. Hot Pink was alive.
Wie hiesst Himmler’s brain? Ashley McNelis on Laurent Binet’s HHhH.
Reinhard Heydrich was known as the Blond Beast, the Butcher of Prague, and Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand Nazi. Laurent Binet’s HHhH—Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich)—is at once an exhaustive historical novel on the rise and fall of a fundamental figure of the Nazi Party during the Holocaust and a reflection on the efforts involved in writing such a compelling and significant historical tale. An impressive debut, HHhH was awarded the distinguished Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman Prize.
The narrative both fascinates and disgusts; Heydrich’s career in the Third Reich was overwhelmingly “successful.” Once he joined the SS as a foot soldier, he rose startlingly quickly through the ranks, and went on to hold many powerful office positions where his actions greatly enhanced the control and reach of the Nazi government. In many situations, his ruthlessness was unsurpassed; on occasion, no mercy was given to Aryan citizens who disobeyed the government. He served as the director of the Reich Main Security Office, which oversaw the SS and the Gestapo, and where he founded the SD, an organization of spies in charge of exterminating resistance efforts. He acted as the chairperson at the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution plans were laid out and was also a main organizer of the infamous Kristallnacht. For a time, he was president of the international law enforcement agency, Interpol. But, his most powerful position was as the Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he exterminated almost all of the resistance, lived like a king while he operated out of Prague—the largest castle in the world and the seat of the Czech government—and ultimately met his demise.
Jena Salon on the sacrifice and selfishness in Matt Bell’s new novella, Cataclysm Baby.
When my children were born the doctor reached into their throats and cleared out the sputum in such a swift motion that I barely noticed I was supposed to be waiting for them to cry out. When the first child is born into the apocalyptic world of Matt Bell’s new novella, Cataclysm Baby, the father reaches into his baby’s throat to clear out the hair which is lodged there, the hair from “the furred windpipe,” from the matted esophagus,” but only his “wife cries.” And yet, it is not the idea of a still born, or quickly fading child that wrenches my heart, but rather the father’s reflection—as his wife begs him to “Pull. Pull. Pull,” and he desperately continues to clear fur from the lungs and stomach—that the child is not right for the horrible world into which he has been born. His body is not right, is not capable of survival, and yet, the father tells us, “what a coward I would be to stop.”
Bob Holman is on the road to save the day.
A camel-shaped teapot sits on the highest shelf of the cabinet. If this were fiction, that would’ve been the teapot we used. Instead too-hot-to-drink Chinese tea splashes out of a nondescript teapot. Tea cooling, I ask poet Bob Holman about his documentary on endangered languages, produced by Rattapallax in association with Bowery Arts and Science, that is currently airing on LinkTV. In the show, On the Road with Bob Holman, the downtown New York poet and host of the three-part series traveled to West Africa and Israel and the West Bank to bring light to the fact that more than half of the world’s 6500 languages will disappear before the end of this century.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos Let’s start with a joke. What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bob Holman Uhhh, bilingual?
SN Bilingual! What do you call someone who speaks one language?
Gregory Lawless speaks with Nate Pritts about his new collection, Sweet Nothings.
Nate Pritts is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sweet Nothing, which Publishers Weekly describes as “both baroque and irreverent, banal and romantic, his poems . . . . arrive at a place of vulnerability and sincerity.”
His poetry and prose have been published widely, both online and in print and on barns, at places like Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, Gulf Coast, Boston Review & Rain Taxi where he frequently contributes reviews. He is the founder & principal editor of H_NGM_N, an online journal & small press.
Pritts writes of his own work, “what’s at stake for me is POETRY over the POEM; I am . . . . interested now in developing an askesis of living, a process whereby I can live & feel.” He sees poetry as an essential means of exploring/generating both existential and artistic meaning: “I want to write poetry, I want to write my life.” Consequently, his poetry is full of inquiries, quests, and questions that return cyclically and obsessively in his longer poems, and which complicate the meditative tenor of his shorter works. Recently I interviewed Pritts about his latest book, Sweet Nothing, and his work as editor of H_NGM_N.
This is when I say what it is that I do
& I’m telling it to you.
—From the poem “After Seeing Such Thriving”
Iris Cushing speaks with the artist/poet couple, Marina Temkina and Michel Gérard, about their new book Who is I?
In Who is I?, the second installment in the Content Series, Marina Temkina and Michel Gérard offer a rare and welcome reading experience: a compelling narrative without words. This collection of instant photos, taken over twenty years of the artist/poet couple’s shared life, seems a fitting collaboration for two makers who don’t share a native language. The images are made in the now-antiquated mediums of the Photomat booth and Polaroid camera, snapped in spare moments during Gérard and Temkina’s extensive travels. They document a relationship continually in motion, evolving through multiple places and personas, with togetherness as the only constant. They document two lives seamlessly interwoven with art, and with each other.
Who is I? comes as a satisfying realization of the idea behind the Content Series. Conceived of and published by poet James Copeland, the series offers eighty pages in which the author (or in this case, authors) have free reign. Temkina, a poet and artist from St. Petersberg, is the author of What Do You Want? (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), among other books. Gérard, an artist from Paris, has worked on site-specific public sculpture throughout Europe, Korea and the United States. This is the couple’s third collaborative book. The three of us got together one night over tea to discuss how both the pictures and the book came into being. I was delighted to discover the variety of characters who influenced Gérard and Temkina’s collaboration—from Amerigo Vespucci to Buster Keaton—and, most importantly, Gérard and Temkina.
Iris Cushing These images make me think of multiple places—maybe it’s because photo booths are found in transient spaces, like train stations, all over the world. It gives the sense of travel, not just in physical space, but through time as well. How did you begin making them?
Marina Temkina The whole idea of a photo collection was Michel’s idea, from the very beginning. After we made the first one, he got an idea that we should start making them. On one of our first trips together in summer in France—we were going to the south for some reason, to Aix-en-Provence—I remember Michel saying, as we zigzagged through Europe, “our biographers will not have a way to follow us.” I was absolutely fascinated that he had that type of thing in his mind—that he was thinking about biographers.
Levi Rubeck speaks with poet Noel Black about his new book of poetry Uselysses.
An old buddy called to tell me that he’s quitting his band. His heart isn’t in it anymore, though he’s also wrecked to think about how he will be disappointing his crew. But you need heart, especially in a place as taxing as Wyoming. I feel the same way about poetry sometimes. I can’t quit poetry any more than my friend could ever truly quit guitar, but the game and its politics can grind you down if you aren’t careful. Just as my faith in poetry waned, Noel Black’s Uselysses arrived.
A pun is an easy way to catch my squirrel-like attention, especially one that spins on the source material ever so slightly. It didn’t hurt that I’d recently finished Ulysses after years of false starts. Both books bathe in puns and portmanteaus, devices that force double vision in a way separate from repetition or careful, particular language. Dancing with the monument of poetry’s past and inventing new steps as he goes along, Black exhibits a love for the canon that matches his irreverent narratives.
Levi Rubeck What was the writing process for Uselysses like? It’s a book that spans geographies, from Cali to Colorado Springs to NYC, and presumably time as well. Did you have a consistent vision for this as book or did you find that these sections came together in post-production?
Noel Black I wouldn’t say I had a consistent vision other than wanting to get as far away as possible from the Bay Area poetry politics and get back to my earliest impulses to write poems: to say what I wanted to say with words that I enjoyed, and to let my thoughts lead me to strange places, lost memories, future reveries, etc.
Melissa Seley speaks with author Lars Iyer about his trilogy of novels, Spurious, Dogma, and the forthcoming Exodus.
In England, where nearly all philosophy departments adhere to the pre-Kantian analytic method, Lars Iyer is a lecturer in one of the last robust post-Kantian philosophy strongholds at the University of Newcastle on Tyne. When Iyer began blogging about his philosophical musings and end-times despair, a fictional dialogue between two failed philosophy lecturers—“Lars” and his caustic counterpart “W.”—emerged. What ensued, as Lars’s and W.’s banter took on a life of its own, is a Beckettsian mumblecore-meets-Larry David satire trilogy composed of the novels Spurious (2010), Dogma (2012) and next year’s Exodus.
MS You’ve said that literature is posthumous. What do you mean?
LI Sometimes, it is necessary say stupid things—to speak out from an overwhelming feeling. For some time, I have felt that what has been called literature for a couple of centuries is over: that the conditions in which it thrived, and which are necessary for its survival, have disappeared. Perhaps this is plain wrong—more books are being published than ever, and in more parts of the world. Perhaps my claim reflects a crisis of Western culture, a crisis of masculinity, a crisis of a privileged “race.” Perhaps amazing new literary hybrids will appear, the like of which we can only dream of. Perhaps a new chapter of literature, capital L, is about to begin . . . . I do not have the strength to believe in these things. I wish that I did.
Catherine Lacey speaks with author Amelia Gray about her new novel THREATS.
My awe of Amelia Gray began last winter at a noisy bar in DC. Half-drunk and totally drunk book nerds were getting rowdy at that year’s Lit Party, an unofficial AWP event that is usually more party than literature. Three readers were scheduled, and the audience feigned a few seconds interest in the first two before loudly returning to their conversations. Then Amelia Gray took the stage, and the crowd was completely rapt. She read (or really, shouted) from a stack of index cards, one threat on each card, tossing them aside as she went. “I WILL LOCK YOU IN A ROOM MUCH LIKE YOUR OWN UNTIL IT BEGINS TO FILL WITH WATER,” and “I WILL CROSS STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR HOME BURNING. I WILL HANG IT OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP,” then “LETS MAKE A BABY.”
This, of course, was just a condensed taste of Gray’s work. Her first collection of short fiction, AM/PM, came out from Featherproof books in 2009 and her second collection Museum of the Weird, was released by FC2 in 2010. She soon caught the attention of FSG, who just published her first novel, THREATS. I recently emailed with Amelia about some questions the novel raised for me.
Catherine Lacey Given your experience as a short fiction writer, I wondered if the messages that David finds around the house came first, as their own little stories. Maybe this was because I was so struck by the voice, compelled by it. Could you tell me about how the work evolved, or, more specifically, if I am right that the threats came first and the rest of the story was built around them?
Amelia Gray You’re right! I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but in hindsight, the best way to get a unique voice in the threats themselves was to write them wholly separate from the rest of the book. I had pages of them, which I wrote for a reading, and when I started writing the book I was more interested in exploring what happened to the woman who died. It was a slow, happy realization that the threats were a part of it.
Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. They continue their conversation in the fourth of four exchanges.
Your response is not “long and self-centered” at all, especially as I am always slightly relieved when The Hole is not under discussion, as if we should better talk around these things than about them strictly. Or they can be points of departure for conversations about what is happening, what is on the mind.
Your impulse to call friends after the events at Oakland last weekend, I identify with completely. The way you put all this . . . how wonderful! And it leaves me wondering what a resistance movement would be—especially in Oakland—that did not court violence from the police, who are obviously thuggish and rogue. Maybe it demands a different set of experiments? Not that I necessarily know what these would be. However I have to say, it does/did make sense strategically to want to draw out this aporia of our property system; that there are all these people without homes and who are losing their homes while these major corporations and banks benefit from the all-too-convenient (and contradictory by Neoliberal rhetoric) socialization of wealth. Maybe the problem is with scale? Were we only able to tempt the law to our side by making ourselves more desirable? Or by playing on their capacities for empathy? The resistance to objectifying police has been something interesting I have witnessed in OWS NYC, to make police recognize you as a person, to experiment in this way. But conditions are different here, I’ll leave it at that. The systematic violence of the police department in Oakland obviously has to be totally uprooted, which means officials like Quan with them, anyone who has supported this intolerable cycle of violence.
Rebecca Keith speaks with author Jesmyn Ward about her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her second novel, is a tense build up to Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as experienced by the family of fifteen year-old Esch, her three brothers, their father, and her brother Skeetah’s prize-fighting pit-bull, China. Ward takes readers through the training, posturing, and blood as Skeetah preps China, who is “one great tooth,” for a big fight. Early on, you find out that Esch is pregnant by her brother’s friend Manny, who won’t even look her in the eye. All the while, the family slowly gathers itself for Katrina. A static-choked weather report says “preparation . . . key.” Esch’s father tears down their chicken coop for wood to board up the windows, but the dimensions are off; a sliver of each window remains exposed. When the storm finally arrives, Ward drags you through twenty-four hours of utter terror. As much as you’ve read about Katrina, Ward’s account, through the eyes of Esch, leaves you absolutely wrecked. Esch thinks, “I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it.”
Rebecca Keith There are so many mother archetypes in the book: Medea, Esch’s mom, Esch, China to her puppies and to Skeetah, even Skeetah to China, and Katrina, the killer mother who’s compared to Medea (as is China). Esch’s father is ineffectual and beaten down, not absent but nearly so. Were these roles of strong mother figure and weak father figure necessary? Were they the only options for these characters? Did you draw the father this way to make Esch’s strength stand out more? On the other hand, Esch vacillates between strength and weakness, demonstrating the reality of teenage crushes, the power of a glance, or lack of a glance, to destroy a girl, the way one can focus all one’s energy on staring at someone, clocking his every move, without actually looking at him.
Jesmyn Ward I was nurturing the idea of writing a book about a girl who grows up in a world full of men for around two years before I began writing Salvage the Bones. Esch’s character was the seed for the book, really, and in order for her to exist in that lonely place without women, her mother had to be dead. The fact that she was such a strong presence, in life as well as death, was actually a surprise for me. As was the father’s weakness. I didn’t set out to make him a weak character; he walked on the page, and he was one, mostly, until he began surprising me, in small ways, with his strength. I do think the lack of a strong paternal presence allows Esch some freedom to flounder and find her way that she would not have if her father were more together and authoritative.
Levi Rubeck on the perils of adolescence in Rebecca Wolff’s The Beginners.
As a thirty-year-old man reading Rebecca Wolff’s The Beginners, I was surprised at how easily I was transported to those warped, timeless days of sexuality’s first stirrings. Sex, confusion, and a constantly evolving sense of self are a few of the major areas that occupy Woolf’s first novel, as well as the teenage cognitive processes. The book is sharp and particulate, unafraid to approach the highs and lows of human experience, and what is life as a teenager if not steeped in the extremes of humanity? Armed by her time spent with poetry and as an editor, Woolf explores nascent sexuality and the perils of intelligence by using language at the molecular level.
Ginger, the 17-on-18-year-old protagonist, appears to have reached a higher personal clarity than I would have at her age. For a novel that’s thin on identifiable plot or action points, The Beginners is propelled at a engaging pace by the voice of Ginger, whose thoughts are the primary force of the text. This doesn’t necessarily make her reliable, of course. I was intrigued by her ability to read the situation evolving between herself and Cherry, her best friend, as they grew apart in the summer before their senior year:
Cherry dried the dishes as I washed them. We did not speak, had not spoken much all day. I felt we were at an impasse, though she could not be privy to it. The novelty of this private experience, of knowing something she didn’t, and wouldn’t, was both a pain and a pleasure.
Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. They continue their conversation in the third of several dialogues.
Sorry for being a bit M.I.A. this month. Work has been busy, and I was set back by the flu and the untimely passing of a friend. The friend who passed away worked the good part of his life as an archivist and was a mentor to me in the profession. I think “the archive” relates to this discussion we’re having, inasmuch as it is so much about time, presence, reification. And maybe it relates to this way we can oppose our books to the Catullan desire for “glory”—being immortalized by one’s deeds or through proclaiming the infamies of others. Of course archives are so much about this immortalization. But they are also so much about an inevitable and anticipated ruin. Their very existence implies the reverse of posterity. It’s working with materials, many of the most beautiful of which are fragile and brittle, marked by Benjaminian auras—the blemishes and beauty marks of their history, encounters with people of the past, etc. Working in an archive changes one’s sense of time. As if all you can do is be a little bit better organized, or up with the latest gear, to get a jump on eternity. I think that’s one way to look at it anyway. And this is not to even get into the politics of archives, which is so much about what is worth preserving, what is culturally valued, who gets to work in these places and gain access. A huge conversation. One rarely brought up in poetry or art, at least not in any really public kind of way. At least until public resources are supporting something cultural conservatives don’t like.
Aiden Arata speaks with Lorin Stein, translator of Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait.
Many readers expected Edouard Levé’s Suicide to be a death manifesto: something to explore and expose the art of self destruction. Those readers were disappointed. The novel circumvents details about Levé himself, and is instead dedicated to the process of living beyond death, narrated to and about a friend who passed more than twenty years earlier. That Levé would kill himself days after he produced the manuscript for Suicide would only seem fated after the fact. In effect, his work is less of a suicide note and more of a love letter. For the bloodlusty among us, Autoportrait, Levé’s 2005 French autobiography, forthcoming in English from Dalkey Archives Press, is still not the book they’ve been looking for.
Autoportrait is a delicate and desperate attempt to list a life; it is Levé’s justification for occupying the world as long as he has. Levé’s writing is terse to the point that some sentences read as though they can’t wait to be over already, but there’s a sweetness to his diction and a magic in his brevity. Each fragment is a spark among the ghosts of sentences past. The effect is similar to holding one’s breath in a pool of Polaroids. And it is, truly, breathtaking. Levé lulls the reader into a trance and then slaps him with a strange secret so human it breathes and beats. One such assertion: “Fifteen years old is the middle of my life, regardless of when I die.”
Kate Perkins speaks with author Miles Klee about his debut novel Ivyland.
Rather than let the relentless absurdity of headline news get us down, my friends and I like to play the occasional e-mail round of “Real News or Onion Headline?” You’ve probably played some version of it before (or watched The Daily Show). It’s a good way of laughing to save our sanity, rather than altogether cracking up. My most recent entry that wasn’t from the Republican debates came from the sports world (which, much like the primary elections, is run by corporation-persons; in fact, probably many of the same corporation-persons!). It read: “Indiana Pacers’ Arena Renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse.”
I thought of “Bankers Life Fieldhouse” when I came to a passage early in Miles Klee’s darkly funny debut novel, Ivyland. There’s a rolling blackout in the book’s eponymous town, and when the characters DH and Leviticus go outside to investigate, they register—with prescription drug subdue—a riot scene, apparently in response to the territorial encroachment of the town’s monopoly subsidizer, a faceless pharmaceutical corporation(-person):
If the bright new street sign isn’t a prank, Clark Ave. has been renamed “Bladderade Boulevard.” As in, the Adderade flavor that helps old folks with urine flow and control.
Miles Klee There’s definitely an element of writing myself out of the darkness, even as I’m writing about dark times. Things are so serious that laughing at the world just feels transgressive. In a way it’s a case of the “church giggles”—when you’re supposed to keep a straight face, you need to feel something, you have to laugh.
Kate Perkins Transgression is a funny thing in Ivyland. It’s an anti-moral universe. Everyone’s medicated, addicted to the intoxicating gas supply—corporate pharmaceuticals for every state of mind. It’s interesting to me how antithetical it is to the Beats’ relationship to drugs, which was about a liberation of consciousness, a transgression in its own right. In Ivyland, drugs are about being controlled and therefore at the same time about being out control.
Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown continue to dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. In the second of several dialogues, they delve into the archive of the unknown.
I have been looking forward to starting this email to you all week (and I’m not sure I can finish it now, late at night before a new work week). I had this experience today that reminded me of you. Going to a friend’s house, a friend who is a painter, ostensibly for a “studio visit” but really just to hang-out. After I visited his studio/apartment, we stepped out for a drink down the street. When we arrived at the bar, he noticed he had a message on his phone from my number. I guess when I arrived at his studio/apartment, I had called him but forgotten to hang-up, so the phone left a message of our greeting each other and starting to get settled in his studio. I was thinking how much maybe the phone was performing something similar to what you call “preceding/proceeding” translation, which I could quote you on from your wonderful Catullus, but the book being out of reach, I will just say I understand to be any act of translation which makes visible the translator’s embodiment and their situatedness within a set of life circumstances as a vital aspect of the translation, if not the very content of the translated work itself. As if those voices return to us more real through their framing in a just-left voice message, or through translation works which, as you say at the close of your Persians, always depend on a re-translation by others who will make the work matter through their own performances, a performance by their future bodies. It makes me think that when we talk of “life,” or a radical autobiographical practice, which is something I have been thinking about quite a bit, we are talking about how artifice and mediation can register these delays that make us feel as though we have lived or are living more acutely while also framing, to use your phrase from Catullus, an “anxiety about the destruction of the present.”
Jarett Kobek’s novel ATTA reads as a relentless laceration of the fear and disaster mythologies of globalized empire.
I was late getting to Kobek’s reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood. I was late and somehow dreading it, knowing how readings go, that is, poorly. When I finally arrived a half hour late, they were just beginning. Seconds into the reading, my fears blew up. It was perfect. Almost an anti-reading, the event was a fascinating talk and memoir interspersed with Kobek reading pages of his taut, terse prose. ATTA is 95% fact, 5% invention, says Kobek, but that invention belies its numerical limit by its staunch lack of restraint. I understand this mix of fact and invention to reflect something of our media-saturated reality. The more wild the invention, the more true it becomes, and the more weight that truth has. Think of the invention of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify America’s entry into war. A rather small but wild invention with real, massive, and durable effects.
Noura Wedell This book, compared to your first, is a more traditionally genred novel about the American Dream and what constitutes success in today’s America. How did you come to find this hero of this perverted American Dream, and why did you write about Mohamed Atta?
Jarett Kobek The American Dream part came a little bit later. About a month or two after 9/11 there were news stories filtering out about how these guys had spent years preparing. The pilots had been in the country for two years. Atta and the other pilots attended flight school. Only Atta received his FAA certification. But when the big day came, he almost missed his flight. That fascinated me, because it didn’t fit with the widespread media narratives about how we’d been attacked by a group of evil geniuses. When you get into the nitty gritty, here’s a guy who almost missed his flight. If he had actually missed that flight—I mean his life was going to be over if he made the flight—his life would have been over in a much more significant, much more severe way. Success offered the known result. Failure was the great disaster.
Andrea Quaid and Vanessa Place on the simultaneity, reflection, and transformation of conceptualism.
Of Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms, conceptual artist Mary Kelly said, “I learned more about the impact of conceptualism on artists and writers than I had from reading so-called canonical works on the subject.” Poet and UbuWeb founding editor Kenneth Goldsmith said Vanessa Place’s work is “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today.” Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout said, “Vanessa Place is writing terminal poetry.” Bebrowed’s Blog said Vanessa Place is “the scariest poet on the planet.” Someone on Twitter said: “Vanessa Place killed poetry.”
Place is most certainly a literary and intellectual force whose work challenges what we mean by the word Poetry. Her two latest works, Statement of the Case and Argument (Blanc Press 2011), complete her trilogy, Tragodia. The conceptual writing project is one of radical mimesis as Place, an appellate criminal defense attorney who specializes in sex offense cases, presents her own legal documents as poetry and leaves the critique-complicity balance to teeter uncomfortably without settling on one or the other. Newly published by P-queue Editions, The Father & Childhood is a selection from a second serial work, Boycott Project, with the eagerly awaited complete work, Boycott Project, forthcoming this year from Ugly Duckling Presse. In this work, Place collects canonical feminist texts and replaces all feminine pronouns and gendered terms with their masculine counterpart to create a textual encounter leveled into masculine sameness. It’s all about men. As co-director of Les Figues Press and as editor, with Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Brown, and Teresa Carmody, Place collaborated on the recently completed anthology, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women. Place is also a regular contributor to X-tra Art Quarterly, and lectures and performs internationally.
Andrea Quaid This past September, you participated in a two-day symposium on your work at The Université de Paris Est Marne-la-Vallée organized around innovative analytical writing and “practice-based criticism,” or critical writing practices intimately connected to, yet different from, one’s creative writing practice. One aspect I find most striking about your poetic practice is your theoretical work, which moves deftly from aesthetics and philosophy to gender theory to cultural criticism. How do you experience the relationship between the two types of writing?
Vanessa Place They are the same thing, just different performances.
AQ At this symposium you presented “The Case for Conceptualism,” which argues that we are now in the conceptualist period as it defines itself against postmodernism. Is the conceptualist period, as postmodernism’s after, a description of our current historical period or (and always, and) conceptual writing’s aesthetic and cultural response to such compositional strategies of (to keep the list on p) parataxis, parody, pastiche, and polyvocality?
VP “Or” is always “and,” as you note. Hands find gloves, gloves, hands. In this sense, conceptualism is the correspondence between case and file. A case is many things, including a lawsuit, which is a case for and against, and a suitcase, which can contain anything that fits within a valise. A file can be used in old movies to escape from jail.
Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown promise to dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. In this first of several dialogues, they share mutual adoration and opening provocations.
These past few weeks I have been living with your books that came out this past fall: The Persians by Aeschylus (Displaced Press) and The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Krupskaya). It’s been a marvelous time, especially listening to your prosody in tandem with certain rap albums (Biggie, Wu Tang Clan, Jay Z), hearing the immense resonance with your own lyric. Persians and Catullus turn the heat up on quite a few recent conversations about “avant-garde” and “experimental” writing, while returning to some pretty f**king ancient sources. Likewise, the books have a pretty unorthodox outlook on the “task of the translator,” where translation issues not just from the faithful comparison of two (or more) languages (etymologically, philologically), but through bodily exigencies. The way the translator’s embodiment and their surrounding circumstances (social context, love interests, friendships, diet) shape any work of translation. How you have chosen to make procedures for translation out of your own, and others’, daily lives.
Would you care to talk briefly about how you see these books in a larger discourse? Both within the history of other translation practices, but particularly in terms of the point we have come to with a “post avant” poetics that is trying to grapple with larger political and social practices?
Julia Guez on the pleasure and pain in Henri Cole’s book of poetry Touch.
In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud elaborates on “the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive.” To this end, he observes a child at play. When left alone, the child entertains himself with the invention of a game involving the forced disappearance and return of various toys (a wooden reel on a string, for example).
The game soon reveals itself to be a way for the child to enact and, in a way, master the distress of being left alone. Given the child’s strong attachment to his own mother, it seems strange that he would choose to re-enact the clearly unpleasant experience of being left alone with a game (requiring him to rehearse the loss and recovery, and re-activate the distress of the departure before re-activating any delight in the return).
Unpacking the significance of the fort-da game—so-called because these are the specific words the child will use to signify the disappearance and return of objects within his reach—Freud was able to postulate the existence of impulses, tendencies or compulsions that seem to operate independently of the pleasure principle.
After the discussion of children at play, Freud includes the following as a kind of addendum, “A reminder may be added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children’s, are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable.”
There may be no better way to frame my analysis of Henri Cole’s newest collection, Touch. Cole is fearless in treating the loss of a mother. He is fearless in treating other losses, as well—the hens, for example, victims of capital punishment. At points, the only constraints seem to be formal.