How to Do Things With Readings: After Cave Canem’s 20th Anniversary

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Photos by Davon Clark. Clockwise from left: Camille Rankine, Danez Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Duriel E. Harris.

 

Like any literary form or rule, the poetry reading raises questions regarding subjectivity and context: whose conventions are these, what do they enable, and how do they suit the projects at hand?

Get beyond the beret-sporting, bongo-peppered cliché of what constitutes a poetry reading, and most writers still anticipate adherence to a conventional form: a reader will be introduced by a (hopefully) truncated version of their C.V. Said reader will say the name of their piece and an optional bit of information (e.g. explication of a particular non-literary concept, the origin of their title, a dedication/acknowledgement/epigraph, a framing anecdote), then read the piece itself, likely in a distinguishable poem-reading voice, after which they’ll pause, or possibly say thank you. Maybe there’s a dribble of audience applause but even here, what’s most typical is the falter: do we clap now or at the end? Do we snap, talk back, or remain silent? What is respectful? What is celebratory?

Pittsburgh has been home to some of the dearest literary events I’ve experienced. I was lucky to land here before the Gist Street series shuttered, a recurrent reading/potluck in a converted attic, distinguished by homemade ice cream and a line down the block. I went to MFA readings in the second floor of a since-closed dive bar, where listeners sat at poker tables while undergrads bought $1 Long Islands downstairs. These readings felt as much like parties as performances, adapting spatial practice to close the distance between a reader and her audience.Continue Reading

Planetary Poetry

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It’s a comet, no it’s a planet, no it’s not a planet, yes it is. What is it about Pluto that so draws us to it? Is it that Pluto is so far away? Or is it just that we always pull for the underdog? Over the past few years, especially, as Pluto’s planetary status has been called into question, the adoration for the planet has only risen. Perhaps, there’s something to the idea of distance, of the unknowable vastness that stretches between us on Earth and the surface of this planet (or dwarf planet or whatever). It is in this expanse, that poetry seems to have found a way to talk about other distances—more of the metaphorical and emotional nature— through the use of planets.

In his poem, “Pluto’s Loss,” poet Paul Guest begins with the line: “Little star, how lost to us you are already” and goes on to elegize Pluto as something that is so small and far away and cold that it’s easy for humans to forget, to not think about, to push out of the mind. However, Guest then brings the poem around to his own thoughts. It’s easier to remember the distances between our own memories—a lost love, perhaps—than it is to think about the distances between planets.

In the end of the poem, though, Guest then makes another twist: it’s also easy, he argues, for humans to be small and distant and forgotten by the heavens. The poems ends: “In that moment, and in this one, I could not be/ more human, to the dead sky/ making apologies heard by no one, by nothing.” Maybe, we identify with Pluto because we too can feel so small and cold and easily pushed out of the mind.Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: James Joyce and John Updike

APOne of John Updike’s early and most anthologized stories, “A & P,” from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, is a modern retelling of James Joyce’s “Araby” from The Dubliners. While almost 50 years pass between their publications, both stories consider how a boy’s romantic crush leads to heroic deeds that are ultimately unfulfilled. It is clear that Updike used “Araby” as a model for his story, both mirroring and updating key elements.

In “Araby,” the first person narrator is in love with his friend’s sister who lives on his street. Again and again, Joyce presents us with images of this idealized woman as the boy observes her standing outside of her home, a building with a “brown imperturbable face”:

She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

Because the Dublin of “Araby” is so dark and constrained, the lamplight is key here, as it lights up everything about her, and allows us to see her as the narrator does. She is, literally and figuratively, above the narrator, and we feel his adoration for her in the way that he describes her. As a student at the convent, she is clearly drawn as a madonna figure but there is also—as often with Joyce—a bit of the whore symbolism woven in as well, as we end with a look at her undergarments. The narrator is dramatic in his love for her and that dramatic tendency returns at the end, in his epiphanic moment, as his disillusionment reaches its peak.Continue Reading

Liber Interruptus

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For years, I finished every book I started. Short collections, slim volumes of poetry, novels fat with lyricism, the latest tome from Neal Stephenson—I soldiered through them all. Then, a few years out of grad school, on my morning bus ride to work, I found myself falling asleep in the same three paragraph stretch of a short, award-winning novel, waking up and trying to reread it, and falling asleep again. That book—a book my writer friends raved about—put me to sleep three times before I gave up on it. It was the first book I had stopped reading that I could remember, and it felt incredible.

Juliet Lapidos, writing for The Atlantic, argues that a reader should finish every book she starts. Lapidos proposes three reasons for continuing to read a book even when you’re dying to put it down:

  • Pleasure. Because some books are late bloomers. “I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages,” she writes, “only to later amaze me with their brilliance.”
  • Fortitude. Because it’s a sign of strength to finish a novel you hate. “[Reading Atonement] built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor,” Lapidos writes. “This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.”
  • Respect. Because somebody worked hard to write that book you hate, and literary people support writers. My favorite zinger from the Lapidos piece: “Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’”

I support Lapidos’s project; most people do stop reading books too easily, and they’re likely depriving themselves of the pleasure of completing them. What bothers me about her argument, however, is that it assumes that difficult books often end up being rewarding (sometimes they don’t), that finishing bad books builds character (this seems draconian), and that just because a writer finished a book, their endeavor is worthy of respect (guess how many storybooks Donald Trump has written).Continue Reading

Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway

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I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading

Who Speaks How

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I love when people ask my friend Jenny and I how we know each other, because long before we co-taught a queer theory elective and drove cross-country and made parallel moves to Pittsburgh, she was one of my first writing teachers. It was in her Xeroxed handout of eclectic love poems that I first read Stanley Kunitz’s 1971 “After the Last Dynasty”: what would become my first truly beloved poem, which itself begins with a transformative event of reading.

Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
Chairman Mao,
naturally with the sex
transposed
and the figure slighter.
Loving you was a kind
of Chinese guerrilla war.

This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I wanted to observe this poem: to submit how it works and what it means to me as anecdotal evidence of poetic capacity.

The summer I found this poem, I was 16 years old. It was my first time studying at the Young Writers Workshop, an immersive alternative to sports camp then housed in an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was, to borrow the hyperbole of that particular moment, a transformative summer. Emboldened by critical pedagogy and a lot of Ani DiFranco, I wrote love poems for my camp boyfriend, ekphrastic poems for seventeenth century paintings, slam poems (I know) for men who’d harassed me on the metro.Continue Reading

On Questioning Narrative Sequence

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At the Contemporary Museum of Art in Montreal, Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” plays on nine screens in a dark theater. Each screen features a single musician set to the backdrop of a room in a chateau, which is in disrepair: one woman in a pale lace dress plays cello with a French door open to the outside gardens, one man plays guitar in a claw foot bathtub. All nine musicians chime in to sing: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” In the theater, museum-goers experience all nine screens at once: a simultaneous narrative. In a second theater, which exhibits Kjartansson’s “World Light,” four screens play different scenes from a Halldor Laxness novel at the same time. In the same moment, viewers watch a woman pull on her dress and stockings in the morning, while across the room she fights with her future lover. The presentation of “World Light,” a Nordic story told in its entirety in one moment, calls into question the sequencing of narrative—that is, that a narrative should be read from beginning to end, or that those components should be separate at all. Continue Reading

On Building Believable Characters in Fiction

bw-934485Before I picked up a copy of Offshore last month, it had been years since I read Penelope Fitzgerald, a British author who didn’t start writing until she was in her sixties. But the characters in this Booker Prize-winning novel caught my attention and I soon became completely emerged in Fitzgerald’s cleverly constructed world. Set on the Thames River, multiple houseboat dwellers share their stories of connection, loss, love, and confusion, all with a wry dose of Brit humor. This text might be nearing forty years old but the characters are dimensional and compelling. Reading through it, I discovered why they felt so contemporary: they were as present, conscious, and complex as real people are.

By the second page, a character named Richard reluctantly heads up a group of neighboring houseboat dwellers to discuss a communal problem. As the meeting is in full swing, Richard thinks, “Duty is what no-one will do at the moment.” The omniscient narrator’s voice in a following statement gives the reader details on why Richard might draw this conclusion:

Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Later, when Richard has an encounter with a pushy associate who works in real estate, the narrator guides us once more:

Richard wondered why living on largish boat would automatically make him interested in small ones.

Continue Reading

Looking Otherwise

“Decide Who You Are, #1: Skinned Alive,” Adrian Piper, 1991.

“Decide Who You Are, #1: Skinned Alive,” Adrian Piper, 1991.

We are one month post-“Formation.” In the wake of Beyoncé’s video release (/Super Bowl halftime performance/world tour announcement), a frenzy of reactions and reactions to reactions has proliferated. Only they’re not just reactions, they’re readings.

On the immediate surface of the song’s lyrics, “Formation” is about being Black, and crucially also about looking Black, about embodying Blackness via sensible markers, from the phenotypic negro nose to the gastronomic promise of post-coital Red Lobster. The images, too, are objectively loaded in their simultaneous specificity and abstraction: a sinking police car, a cordon of cops miming hands up don’t shoot, variations on plantation couture, the ineluctable cool of a fur coat and a hatchback in slow motion. The edit braids fashion and trauma to beckon and provoke: You can talk about Trayvon Martin. You can compare brands of highlighter.

Strung together across wide interpretive intervals, these images are ripe for the isolating amplification of meme. Thus the video sparked both instant citation of the “it me” variety, and subsequent—let’s call it, “not you”—backlash. I saw, mostly via Twitter, in roughly this order: celebrations of the video, profound disinterest in/discouragement of white viewers’ reactions to and discussions of the video, calls to publications to hire Black women to respond to the video, and suspicion of the video-spectacle as ultimately apolitical consumerist distraction.

The furor points to questions of literacy. At what point, and for whom, are features of a text not only visible, but legible? How do writers and critics aestheticize difference, and how does difference produce a range of literacies? That last how is expansive. Not just technical mechanics or even an origin story, but under what ongoing conditions are different literacies produced and sustained: e.g. joy; duress; resistance.Continue Reading

Donde Esta el Bano?: Bathrooms in Literature

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Whenever I travel, I think back to “The History of the World through Toilets.” This is the title of a series of notes for an epic poem jotted down by Isodora Wing, the narrator of Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying.

“British,” it begins:

British toilet paper. A way of life. Coated. Refusing to absorb, soften, or bend (stiff upper lip). Often property of government. In the ultimate welfare state even the t.p. is printed with propaganda.

The British toilet as the last refuge of colonialism. Water rushing overhead like Victoria Falls, & you an explorer. The spray in your face. For one brief moment (as you flush) Britannia rules the waves again.

The pull chain is elegant. A bell cord in a stately home (open to the public, for pennies, on Sundays).

Jong goes on to examine the sociopolitical implications of toilets in Germany, Italy, France, and Japan. I first read the novel thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten this passage.

Bathrooms are, after all, the one aspect of other cultures that it’s impossible for even the most insulated traveler to avoid. On my first trip to China, I was horrified by fellow Americans who managed to track down a McDonalds for every meal. But was I really any better? I was always trying to find handicapped toilets, handicapped being synonymous with western, suggesting that the Chinese see the inability to use squat toilets as a disability. And maybe it is: by my third trip, I routinely had no choice and concluded that “squatty potties” are as important an immersion experience as eating at out-of-the-way restaurants and visiting non-tourist destinations.Continue Reading