“Back in black / I hit the sack / I been too long / I’m glad to be back.”

Hey.

Are you still here?

Okay.  I hope so.  And I’m glad if you are.

When I first sat down to write this, I thought, I am going to write about how all of a sudden we are halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.  And then I realized that I’d been writing “7” for the month for, like, oh, thirty-one days now.  And then I mathed and realized that half of twelve is six, not seven, which means we are over halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.  Or, I guess, I’ve been trying to blog, but I haven’t been able to put much of my energy into a post.  For a while I told myself, Self, you are totally experimenting.  You’re just micro-blogging.  You’re a revolution and that revolution is CUTTING EDGE.  Then I remembered that I am not a revolution, nor am I particularly cutting-edge at anything, and that illusion lay shattered, like the shards in the Delicate Vase Aisle at Hobby Lobby after being visited by a mob of grammar school kids who have just eaten too many M&Ms.

Like I mentioned in my revolutionary and cutting-edge micro-blogging entries, there have been Circumstances, and these were the kinds of Circumstances that require most-and-I-mean-most, if not all, of one’s energies.  These were the kinds of Circumstances that require a re-routing of one’s life and how one lives it, the kinds of Circumstances that — very, very literally — stop one in one’s tracks and require one to Think.  A lot.  And then to Adjust.

That is all very vague, you are probably thinking.  Why are we talking in such vague terms and using David Foster Wallace capital letters to try to make up for it, you are probably also thinking.  Those are both perfectly legitimate things to be thinking, and I guess the thing is that I have, after Thinking and then a lot more Thinking and then Adjusting, come to the place where I am ready to say that there have been Circumstances but not to talk about what they were/are.  I mean, I have been writing about Circumstances, sure, but in the Let’s Put This In Creative Nonfiction Form So I Can Go As Slowly And Carefully As I Need To And Then Use A Couple Of Metaphors About Christmas Lights To Help Me Out Kind Of Way, not the Very Public As In Immediately Very Public Blogging Kind Of Way.

And that’s the strange and spectacular thing about writing, I think, and, really, reading — there’s something terrifying about the blank page, and that’s the thing we tend to talk about.  But there’s also something amazing and transformative and meditative about the blank page, and then about the way one puts words onto it.  The blank page gives a person the space — and the safety — that they need to think things through.  And I mean really think things through.  When I write poetry, I’m often prisming off of my personal experience, but in very extreme and sometimes even absurd ways.  I’m taking myself to the edges of language and seeing what’s there.  I’m taking each situation to its extreme, and then every angle of each situation, to see how it looks.  I’m turning it over and over again in my mind, and with each turn it becomes something new.  I’m speaking about things in a way I can’t speak about them with everyday language, which also means that I’m speaking about things I can’t speak about in everyday language.  That’s because everyday language belongs to everyday life, and there are things that I just can’t spend a lot of everyday time with.  There are things that will shut you down, will stop you from moving inside of everyday life, where there are things that have to keep moving.  There are groceries to buy and student papers to grade and cats to feed.

The everyday world keeps moving, and one must move with it.  Everyday life must be lived.  And so, in these Circumstances, I’ve been grateful for that blank page.  I’ve been grateful for the moments of respite it provides, for the sacramental space it creates, for the place where I can take a break from moving and just be still for a while with my words and the realities they represent, so that I can keep moving, keep doing, keep living.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.

 

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.