There is no Frigate like Book

There are a few small but appreciable benefits from dealing with Circumstances, and all stem from the fact that Circumstances tend to make one re-evaluate and re-think — and Circumstances often give one the time one needs to re-evaluate and re-think.

That sentence was hella awkward.

In less vague and oddly formal third-person terms, I guess I could say that, every so often, it seems like I go through Circumstances that require me to sit back and think about what I’m doing with and in my life, about what really matters to me and on/with what I need to spend the precious-beyond-precious time I have.  And for me, time and time again, the answer is always the same answer: words.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

I think that most, if not all, writers come to write because they love words, which means they love to read.  Most, if not all, of us have a moment tucked inside of us, a moment when words suddenly became more than words, when words unfurled inside the mind into something as enormous and wonderful and even slightly frightening as Jack’s beanstalk, and with its power to transport.

That’s the frightening part — the power — and also the tremendously beautiful part.  It’s what every writer, I think, is, in the end, chasing: the power to transport herself and someone else, in the same was as she herself has been transported, through words.  When I was a little girl, my father took me to the library every weekend, and I remember walking from shelf to shelf, pulling books off the shelves and opening them into Vs, reading random paragraphs to find which ones I wanted to take home.  I always knew when I found the right one: the shelves vanished, the library vanished, the entire state of Alabama vanished, and I vanished with them.  It was just the words, the world that they made.

The Circumstances through which I’m currently moving and living have given me, wondrously, the quiet time I needed to spend with words — both with my own and with others’.  It’s the kind of quiet time I need, from time to time, to recharge.  I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re a person who’s trying to get published or whose job related to words, to get discouraged, to let the rejections overtake you, to lose faith in your own language.  Or, at least, that’s what happens to me, and it happens far more easily and frequently than I often admit.  It’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in publishing and competition and ego (or lack thereof) to the point where your own words aren’t necessarily your own.  It’s easy to forget the small miracle that happens every time a pen hits a page.  It’s easy to forget that more often than not, the writer isn’t the one in control.  The words are.  A writer’s place isn’t in speaking.  It’s in listening.

Reading — living, for a few hundred pages or so, in another’s world, living and listening and loving through and in their words — is the way I remember this.  It’s the way I return, again and again, to the sense of awe that made me begin writing myself.  I mean this in several senses of the word: amazement, yes, but also fear, and the sense of reverence that comes from wonder and terror.  I mean this in the sense of respect of language itself, of how letters and words and sentences build upon themselves, seemingly of their own volition and power.

Though the Circumstances I’m dealing with this summer aren’t necessarily the most pleasant Circumstances, I’m very grateful for them.  They’ve given me the space I need to sit and be quiet and read.  They’ve given me the space I need to remember: I’m still the girl standing somewhere in the vacuum of vanished space and time, a book an open bird in my hand.  I’m still there, in awe of the words, of the world they make.

Are We Après The Avant?*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately — like, a lot — like, an AWP-followed-by-Spring-Break a lot.  A lot of what I’ve been reading circles around one of my continual curiosities: the avant-garde, and what we consider to be the avant-garde.  This week, I delved into page after page of avant-garde poetry and prose.  It was very exciting.  And then it was, well, a little boring.

I was shocked at my own boredom, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help it.  I also couldn’t help realizing that I was reading, well, the same thing.  Over and over again.  The same kind of poem, prancing across and down the page in the same kind of way, breaking its lines at the same kinds of places.**  The same kind of realist-turned-surrealist story, with the same kind of title (“And A Gathering Of Words Which When Gathered Together Sound Ominous And/Or Biblical”).  The same kind of essay, twisting through hybridity, moving from lyric to narrative to back within the same kind of fragmentation.****  Yes, the turns each author made within the form were very often electrifyingly brilliant — but I couldn’t help but think that they were that, exactly, turns within a form rather than complete formal innovation and experiment.  And I couldn’t help but think that the fact that each piece inhabited a similar form meant, de facto, that they weren’t avant-garde.

Perhaps the issue is that, at the same time, I have been reading authors who are very definitely doing their own thing, making their own forms, creating their own shapes for their own thoughts and working them out on the page, sometimes over the course of multiple texts.  I’m thinking of Anne Carson, who has a mind unlike any other mind at work today, and who makes that mind work on the page through a dizzying, unclassifiable, inimitable collision of form and genre.  I’m thinking of the piece she read at AWP, a collaboration with a California artist, in which she explored the idea of sleep through a searingly brilliant academic critique of the character of Albertine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  This piece s both a brilliantly constructed essay and an immaculately built poem — a true innovation in form which might be unique to Carson’s work, starting with “The Glass Essay” ******in her 1992 Glass, Irony, and God, a text which is itself a mind-blending blur of genre and form and forms of thought.  Perhaps the most striking quality of the Albertine piece, to me at least, is that her reading revealed something truly shocking: it’s funny.  Like, actually, legitimately funny.  As in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud from time to time.  I now wonder if this — combining poetry, legitimate scholarship, literary analysis, and humor — is what puts the avant in the garde of Carson’s work.

Of course, we can’t all be Anne Carson — which is precisely the point.  A mind like Carson’s, with its ability to shatter form both in terms of structure and of content in order to do something that’s really, truly new, comes along only once in a little while.  Emily Dickinson’s mind was another such mind, which is another point.  Though even elementary school students know Dickinson now, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her own lifetime — which is, I think, yet another point.  Good doesn’t necessarily mean publishedBrilliant means published even less, and truly innovative and new?  Rarely does that mean published.

Perhaps, then, there’s a reason why the avant-garde feels less like individual formal innovation and more like a group form.  Perhaps what we term as “avant-garde” isn’t necessarily the work of individuals quietly bulldozing and disposing of the boundaries on their own, but of groups of people who run the bulldozers together, for support.  I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty this week.  Nelson herself, I think, is an interesting case — hers is a mind that blends and bends genre, but rarely inside the same text.  This is not to say that Nelson’s work isn’t absolutely brilliant, because it is — it’s just to say that her brilliance fits inside of forms that have become, well, forms.  I don’t mean this as a critique, in any way, because I think her work fits well there: her brilliant criticism is brilliant criticism, her brilliant lyric essays are brilliant lyric essays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It does, however, seem symptomatic of what Nelson describes in The Art of Cruelty, in which she explores the work of various performance artists.  After a while, all of their pieces began to blend together for me; they started to feel the same, as though each performance artist worked off of the form and content of other performance artists.  Though each of the performances Nelson describes is unmistakably avant-garde, they are also avant-garde in the same way.  These artists use the same forms to express their ideas.  They push the same boundaries, test the same limits, and in the same way.  This doesn’t make their work any less important or useful, but it does, I think, make their work part of a movement.

I guess what I’m arguing here — if I’m arguing anything, if there’s anything to be argued — is that what we typically think of as avant-garde or experimental writing is writing that is part of a movement.  It’s the work of a group who are facing the same limits in the same ways.  That’s not to denigrate this kind of writing at all, but to say that perhaps we need different definitions — and different ways to talk about the work of writers who are really, truly doing their own thing.  This isn’t to say that the former is better than the latter, or vice versa, but to say that there’s a difference, and it’s one of which we should be cognizant when we talk about experimental writing.

After all, I think there’s value in pushing one’s self as an artist, in testing limits and boundaries, no matter how that’s done.  The truth is that Emily Dickinson did only publish a handful of poems during her lifetime, and we have her work now through what seems to be essentially a series of accidents.  The truth is that there might be hundreds of Emily Dickinsons out there, whose work didn’t reach us through the same sort of happy accidents.  The truth is also that if there is a group of people working together to test boundaries, their work will be more likely to reach readers, as they will be more likely to publish each other.  And they may be more likely to continue their work: as a group, human beings love groups.  More and more it seems to me that we’re pack animals.  We need company.  We need the support of people who think the way that we do.  Every human institution — from kindergarten classes to University departments to corporations — splits, eventually, into groups of like-minded people who like to do the same things.  The literary world is no different.  And the existence of a group means freer communication, which means the development of ideas, and it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, I think of Anne Carson.  I think of Emily Dickinson.  I think of the writer and artist and thinker working, quietly, on their own, thinking and putting their thoughts on the page in ways which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.  I think of the artist who eschews the group and walks out, alone, into what might be a field of flowers, what might be a minefield, and keeps going.  I can’t help but think that there must be a way to support this kind of writer, or, at least, to talk about their work more clearly, without classifying it out of existence.

Though, of course, that might be just the point: if we do classify it, if we do have names for it, then it no longer exists in the same mind-scorchingly brilliant way.

In that case, let the Carsons be Carsons.  We can, with them and through them, rejoice in their ability to let the unnameable go without name.

 

*That’s right, people.  I did that IN FRENCH.  Somewhere, Madame Lee is suddenly forgiving me for pronouncing English words in a French accent for years.
** I feel it’s only right for me to go ahead and say that I in no way excuse myself from this, as I’m as much a part of the sameness as anyone — I swoon over a couplet, I love a single-line stanza, I die for a transformational line break.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.***
*** That was Latin, which is also another language.  THIS ENTRY IS HELLA DEEP, Y’ALL.
**** Here, too, I admit that I am complicit.  I hesitate to say guilty, because I don’t think that “guilt” is an applicable term.  “Prey to the zeitgeist,*****” maybe.  But then again, is “prey” the right term?  Or is this just the form thought is taking on the page, in the age of electronic information and publishing?
*****THAT WAS GERMAN.  BOOM.
******There’s a link right there to the poem, posted on The Poetry Foundation’s website, because if you haven’t read it, you need to.  Believe me.  Just fasten your seat-belt and get ready.