Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The writer needs to email a scan of his latest bank statement to the mortgage broker. Instead, the writer accidentally emails a scan of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," also on his desktop.
The mortgage broker writes back, "Are you trying to tell me something?"
I did know that Michael Silverblatt had interviewed Joy Williams on more than one occasion for Bookworm, and that these interviews could be listened to on-line. I guess I would have looked for them earlier if I hadn't had such resistance to Michael Silverblatt, who always struck me as taking up too much space and being a little in love with his profundity. (Am I going to get in trouble for saying that? Perhaps that sentence will need deletion.) I guess I sort of came around to him last night when I found out that he was one of Joy's biggest cheerleaders. After having had her on the show several times, he seemed to figure out that he needed to get out of the way, to let her read. To let the stories speak for themselves.
Sometimes I like to entertain myself by making a list of writers who call themselves Joy Wllliams fans: Adam Haslett, Noy Holland, Scott Heim, Cheryl Strayed, Sarah Braunstein, Dennis Cooper, Leni Zumas, Alexander Chee, Myfanwy Collins, Patrick Ryan, Salvatore Scibona, Michael Carroll. What characteristics connect us?
I've known Joy for a long time. The first time we met was back in '96, at the Key West Literary Seminar. I saw her walking into the party; I saw her from far across the room, and I trembled. Literally. I'd never experienced that before--that simultaneous sense of feeling crushed and exhilarated by the human presence of someone whose work was crucial to me. Mark seemed to figure out that contact needed to be made, and he introduced us. I certainly was in no shape to walk up to her myself. She liked hearing about how much I loved her work--I'm sure my sentences trailed off; I'm sure I seemed vaguely dim--but she liked even more the admission that I'd named the developer in LAWNBOY after Clem, the dog in BREAKING AND ENTERING. Now we're talking! she said, and gave me that huge, wonderful smile.
I'm not going to give an account of every exchange I've had with Joy since then--I'm already feeling a little Silverblattish: taking up too much space! But I'll say there's the Joy I know, and there's the Joy who writes. I know the two are connected, but that still didn't prepare me for the surprise of hearing her work in her voice for the first time last night. I woke up happy this morning, as if I'd happened upon a new door into a house I thought I'd known so well.
The link to the show is below. She reads three selections from HONORED GUEST, the sublime "Marabou" and passages from "The Other Week" and the title story. First, though, the passage from "The Other Week":
"What are you getting so upset about?" Freddie said.
"Space and time," she said. "Those used to be the requirements. Space and time or you couldn't get into the nightclub. Our senses were like the nightclub doorkeeper who only let people in who were sensibly dressed, and the criteria for being properly dressed or respectably addressed, whatever, was that things had to be covered up in space and time."
"Who said this?"
Freddie removed his hand from her thigh. "Something's been lost in the translation of that one, Francine. Why does one want to get into the nightclub anyway? Or that nightclub rather than another one?"
"We are the nightclub!" she said. "We're each our own nightclub! And the nightclub might want other patrons. Other patrons might be absolutely necessary for the nightclub to succeed!"
"I think it's a little late to be discussing Kant with such earnestness," Freddie said.
"You mean a little this night late or a little life late?"
He nodded, meaning both.
And now, the link:
Monday, September 29, 2008
I was completely unnerved by the quiet on the sidewalk below, until it dawned on me that it was Rosh Hashana. No apocalypse. At least not tonight. Mark's always kidding me about my tendency to look for the end. Open parking spaces on West 16th Street: The End! Doomed Indian Restaurant papers its windows on Eighth Avenue: The End! Fewer prepared sandwiches on the shelves in Citarella: The End!
But it's hard not to think that way, given today's news.
Anyway, in honor of the New Year, a passage from Grace Paley, from her story "Faith in a Tree":
Well, I must say that when darkness covers the earth and great darkness the people, I will think of you: two men with smart ears. I don't believe civilization can do a lot more than educate a person's senses. If it's truth and honor you want to refine, I think the Jews have some insight. Make no images, imitate no God. After all, in His field, the graphic arts, He is pre-eminent. Then let that One who made the tan deserts and the blue Van Allen belt and the green mountains of New England be in charge of Beauty, which He obviously understands, and let man, who was full of forgiveness at Jerusalem, and full of survival at Troy, let man be in charge of Good.
Happy New Year.
The photo above was taken at Never Never Land, an abandoned attraction in Tacoma, Washington, that Mark and I stumbled upon back in February. (And, no, I'm not condoning the spray painting of giant redwoods.)
The quotation below comes from David Foster Wallace, courtesy of Koreanish, Alexander Chee's excellent website. I don't know the context; he sounds like he's talking about the era before the recent internet frenzy, but much of what he says is still relevant, especially the points about audience:
“If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way. What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.Part of it has to do with living in an era when there’s so much entertainment available, genuine entertainment, and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren’t. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat. There’s so much mass commercial entertainment that’s so good and so slick, this is something that I don’t think any other generation has confronted. That’s what it’s like to be a writer now. I think it’s the best time to be alive ever and it’s probably the best time to be a writer. I’m not sure it’s the easiest time.”
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Well, we both knew it was time to leave Dodge when the rain let loose, the paths got sloppy, and a woman came up to Mark to scold him for writing "No." To make a long story short, she thought the poem should have stated that it was wrong to move or pick up a wood turtle. Then Mark sat behind a man who so much hated another reader that he scowled at the crowd every time applause was offered. As he listened to poem after poem, Mark couldn't help fixating on the pocket knife sheath at this fellow's belt.
Isolated incidents, though. All and all I had an outstanding time, probably the best I've had at any Dodge Festival, and I've been to many. It's pretty hard to imagine a crowd in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube sitting through a four-hour reading and concentrating, but that's what we all did last night. And took in lots of tough, rigorous poems, which resisted any easy ideas of consolation or affirmation.
I dropped Mark off at Newark Airport--no rest for the poet: he has to teach tomorrow and Tuesday in Houston. Then I drove back through Bayonne and Jersey City, in through the Holland Tunnel to put the car back in its usual lot at Pier 40. Now I'm back in the apartment, feeling somewhat oppressed by the copying and printing I have to do for tomorrow's workshop. This strikes me as the least rewarding part of teaching, and I wish I had a better attitude about it, even though a part of me is drawn to mindless tasks that I can applaud myself for accomplishing. I'm treating myself to some Campari to get myself motivated. But I am looking forward to talking about the two student stories, both of which are smart and inspired. Then we're going to take a look at Mary Gaitskill's "A Girl On the Plane," which breaks my heart every time I think of it. Patty LaForge. Poor Patty.
Anyway, above are a few pictures from the morning. Umbrellas in the rain, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Mark with Umbrella, and Chandler, a charming guide dog.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
By and large the festival does seem to be about the poems this year, rather than the POETS. That's a good thing. In years past, it felt like the poems could get lost in the big thicket swirling around them: the need for spiritual connection, the need to assert a political position that wasn't being heard, the need to make contact with someone thought to be a celebrity. But I think we might be at a graver moment, at least when it comes to the life of poetry. It isn't news that the world is in serious trouble right now. There's a hush about things. So when a poem is being read from the stage, there's a collective sense of slipping inside the skin of the poem and inhabiting it together. And listening.
Maybe it's simply the weather.
Anyway, I stayed for part of the big group reading yesterday afternoon, at which all the featured poets read for five minutes. I wish I'd gotten to hear Maxine Kumin, who apparently read an outstanding poem in which the speaker addresses her dead horses into the afterlife. I only heard about five or six of the poets, but I was especially interested in Chris Abani, whose poetry I hadn't known before, and Coral Bracho, whose work was translated and read by Forrest Gander.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Then off Mark and I drove to Waterloo Village, the site of The Dodge Festival. The entry was being guarded, shall we say, by two local cops, both of whom threw up their hands in halt motions as our car approached. Faces hardened. What was it that set them off? Whatever it was, they beamed aggression of a very particular sort at the driver behind the wheel. Poetry and the Police State: I guess they don't quite mix. And it doesn't matter that you're going to met by hundreds of fans underneath the tent inside. And I couldn't quite concentrate on Mark's words for the first fifteen minutes of his talk, even though I got past that, of course. It seemed especially appropriate that someone from the audience asked him to read "Citizens" from FIRE TO FIRE. I'd type part of it here, if I had a copy of the book with me.
Anyway, the relationship between these two events (i.e., good friends vs. hostile police) made me remember something that happened in the city a few nights back. I was thinking about a movie star who lives in the building behind us, someone I haven't seen out and about for the last two years. I had a thought about her; I had a sense of her physical presence, most likely from a movie. And almost simultaneously I looked up, and there she was with her two dogs, not three feet from me. It was dark. My eyesight is bad, and I certainly couldn't see her coming. So the moment seemed wrenching and full of promise. I can't quite name what it was I felt, but I liked what I felt. It actually gave me a little high. Not so much seeing her, though that was sweet. But having the thought of her first. And I guess it was just a little reminder that the everyday is much more complicated than we'll ever be able to know.
Which is why writing matters to me.
Then of course I came home to open a letter from my gym telling me I owed them an additional penalty for some charge I'd taken care of months back--even after I'd been assured that I wouldn't have to worry about it ever again.
I probably don't have to tell you which incident swallowed up the other. The pounding heart! In both cases.
Which is why I'm telling you these stories right now.
As Mark's poem says, When did I ever put anything down?
Good morning from Traditions at Panther Valley, or Expressions at Panther Valley, or The Lobotomy at Panther Valley--or whatever generic retirement community name you'd like to apply to our motel. The place looks a little more shambly in the rain. The parking lot is crumbling at the edges, bleached by years of sun. Weeds are growing in the cracks between the granite curb and the asphalt. And why is that juniper by our front door completely brown?
We stayed up at little late-ish watching The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and South Park, antidotes to a day of bank seizure and other calamity. It sort of shocked me that South Park hadn't lost its strangeness and steam after all these years: OPRAH WINFREY'S VAGINA ATTACKS CHICAGO POLICEMAN! I remembered the poet Susan Mitchell telling us how obsessed she was with South Park when it was new back in '97. All that anarchy and wildness: it makes me want to write!
Speaking of things that make me want to write, here's a passage from my friend Brenda Shaughnessy's poem "I'm Over the Moon." I've been carrying her book HUMAN DARK WITH SUGAR in my backpack the last few days. I'm hoping I'm going to run into her sometime today....
I don't like what the moon is supposed to do.
Confuse me, ovulate me,
spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient
date-rape drug. So I'll howl at you, moon,
I'm angry. I'll take back the night. Using me to
swoon at your questionable light,
you had me chasing you,
the world's worst lover, over and over
hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.
But you disappear for nights on end
with all my erotic mysteries
and my entire unconscious mind.
How long do I try to get water from a stone?
It's like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
An excerpt from "White Pouring," which Mark read tonight:
...Not in our nature
to lament; I sleep here
in the chill shine
and am what I always was:
attention, a swirl of action
around a cluster of -- terms,
really, at our common core:
hungry, white, eggs,
grass. Snow stays late,
the sky untunes
a harsher music.
Where are you hurrying,
in your cold metal?
The legend's passed.
Do you understand?
The beautiful kingdom is over.
Tonight's reading list: HOUSE OF BEAUTY (Fire to Fire), IMMANENCE (new), TICKS (new), APPARITION: ORACULAR PEAR (Fire to Fire), WHITE POURING (Sweet Machine), APPARITION: FAVORITE POEM (Fire to Fire), and A CRIPPLED KING (new).
I left Mark at the Dodge Festival, and I'm back at the Inn at Panther Valley, which has the blasted, pleasant aura of a retirement community. (Think Rossmoor Leisure World.) Our room is on the first floor, in the back, with good views of a green slope, fall foliage, and the Panther Valley feeder road. There's bright blue water in the toilet bowl. Our building fronts an artificial pond occupied by a few dozen Canadian geese. They all look pleased to be a part of their Rossmoor. Before it rains, I'm going to go outside and get a cellphone shot.
Earlier, we pulled into the parking lot of the festival, with all of ten minutes before Mark was scheduled to go on. Then there he was on the stage, beneath the big tent, before hundreds of high school students and their teachers--and who would have known that we were caught in construction zone traffic, in the eastbound lanes of I-80 just minutes before? He read "Brian, Age 7," "Coastal," "Charlie Howard's Descent," and "Heaven for Paul," talked, and answered questions from the crowd. I was especially moved by "Coastal," though I've known that poem for at least 13 years. Maybe I heard it away from my own connections to the material for the first time. I'm talking Provincetown, Mark, the girl at the center of the poem. This time it struck me as a metaphor for the fraught relationship between the human and animal worlds. Then I thought about dead doe we'd seen along the road a bit earlier. And the cheerfully oblivious wild turkey stepping across the lanes of I-80. Did he make it? We couldn't tell.
Thursday might be my favorite day of the Dodge Festival as the bulk of the proceedings are directed to high school students. I like the high school students in that they seem to be especially focussed and serious. They look to the poet and think, I want to do that. How do I make something out of the weirdness inside my head? And that energy's sweet and pleasing to be around.
Above are a few cellphone shots from the morning. I wish they were crisper, but I honestly I like the hazy atmospherics of them. And since my eyesight's so lousy, they seem true to how I see.
She reflected on the octopus, as she did most nights, so intelligent and shy but extending itself, as it were, moving out of its solitary nature, unoctopuslike, impossibly in love. She had always related more to the octopus than the woman, although the woman had to be fairly interesting to find herself in this situation. An octopus could brood and plan for the future, that was known, everybody knew that, and it was undoubtedly brooding and planning at the very moment depicted, while the woman looked as though she had given up. The octopus, so bright and solitary and weird, was giving the situation its full attention, whereas the woman knew that it was suffocating and being poisoned by its bloodstream just by being in the room with her, and that brooding and planning wouldn't help at all. The difference in attitude was what made the situation tragic.
Off to the Dodge Festival. The Dodge Festival in 40 mphs winds? And 1-3 rain? I'm sure I'll have some stories. Mark's big reading is tonight, and this morning he's supposed to talk to (I think?) thousands of NJ high school students under the big tent.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Time seems to pass. The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay. You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.
There's a quote somewhere from Joy Williams in which she likens Don DeLillo to a shark and says she wants to be a shark too. She says it better than that, though. One of these days I'll find it.
Tomorrow I'm off to the Dodge Festival in New Jersey, where it's supposed to be rainy and windy and muddy.