Thursday, November 8, 2012

Writing Out Loud

I've overheard a lot of funny things from behind the counter: 

"You can tell this is a good bookstore, because I'm having trouble finding things."

"It's like an orgy of books in here! What? No, no, I said 'orgy.'"

"You don't sell iPods, period?" (directed at Martin, if memory serves) 

And so on, to say nothing of the sound the bathroom door makes each time customers don't read the sign that says to push the button. Also funny. Now you compare that to the funniest thing that I've been asked directly: "Where's the signup sheet to save the walruses?", and it's a close one, but I'm gonna have to give it to the walrus lady; she came out of nowhere. Still, I've never heard someone say "This is excruciating." Once or twice during my author introductions, maaaybe, but even then I get the feeling that they mean it in a good way, much like beautiful poetry can be hard to bare.

But that was, if not the general consensus, the sentiment of someone to my back this past September at The Walker during Free Verse with Bernadette Mayer. "Excruciating? Really?" I thought as I listened to the poet from New York, along with poets Phillip Good from New York and Jennifer Karmin from Chicago, my home town (who incidentally sends me loads of email about upcoming events in the windy city, without so much as feigning interest in what's new or going on in my life), improvise a long, meandering poem out of scraps of language reissued at various times and intonations, reminiscent of the inner-thoughts of a small group of people collectively losing interest in each other. 

I don't mean "meander" in a bad way, either. Certainly not "excruciatingly" bad, anyway. I appreciate when stories, poems, plays and recipes in cookbooks come haphazardly together, or like a painting make a different sense when viewed from different angles, neither whole nor incomplete, but in the process of becoming. I also give blood. And on Tuesday I voted "NO," except for St. Paul Public Schools, I think... To be honest, all these "yes's" and "no's" have turned this whole thing into a giant, wordy math problem as far as I'm concerned. 

Process is the word that came to mind when Dessa took the stage at The Triple Rock some weeks ago, ostensibly to talk about once choking on a vitamin, but adding bits of poetry and song in such a way that gave me the impression she was making it all up. Again, not in a bad or even a Dan Brown/Da Vinci Code "I'm not sure that's true!" way, but like a dreamer talking in their sleep--each right word and smart silence and hysterical aside riding on the strength of their apparent lack of infrastructure and illogic to their unity. Like a box by Joseph Cornell or collage, Dessa's performance was simultaneously proof and news to me that such narrative reinforcement is as much a product of repetition as surprise. And no I don't mean "surprise" like in a musical where all the characters destroy some piece of public property and sing about it. 

One of my favorite books of 2012, which I myself am in the process of making a list of (so far, I've got The News From Spain and I Could Pee On This) is Dan Chaon's Stay Awake. In a recent interview with Emma Straub, included in the paperback, Chaon too describes his work as a collage, writing "I like the way fragments work together to create a mysterious and resonant whole... There are aspects of our world--our subconscious, our secret image-world--that can't be told as a narrative." 

Stories and poems that "can't be told as narrative" are popping up all over the place, especially, it seems, the second that one's free to roam about and outside of the page. David Sheilds' Reality Hunger caused quite a stir two years ago, essentially for asking if "digital culture [had] rendered traditional modes," presumably of writing (I doubt if Shield's thought more reality was called for in our basting), "obsolete," that is, if the number of A-List author blurbs with exclamation points and words like "funkadelic" striping both its front and back are any indication. (Perhaps the blurbs were too a mark of authenticity, not like those bastard book covers with stuff and people's faces on them. #@$! that ^&%*!) By actively demonstrating that writing without contradiction and/or regret, tied together by as little as an all consuming font is undesirable, if not impossible, Shield's came to the conclusion, or the landing strip, that there is "nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world." 

Chip Kidd does it again. Or forgot to and made this.

Couple that with Austin Kleon's Steal Like An Artist (a book that I won't link to, but that you'll have no trouble finding up at the register, pretending to understand, and ultimately purchasing last minute for, literally, any human being on your list you will have yet to buy a gift for come December), which advocates, not unlike Reality Hunger, the need for artists and, you know, people, chances are, without the slightest inclination or affinity for art whatsoever to forego originality in favor of "being yourself" and you've got a lot of pressure, not just to make great work, but do it naturally, without, it would appear, breaking a sweat.

It sounds preposterous, I realize, especially coming from a guy who has a hard time playing it cool on Fandango, which may be why I have my doubts, but writing, on the surface anyway, seems more and more in awe of its capacity to mash up real life in real time with presentable, if not perfect, prose, as Sheilds argues it should be, thus redefining what "exactly" writing is or has a cause to be, and less enthralled with glossy, finished versions of itself. Is it that anything more, or less, would be artificial? Or that in the 21st century the adequate and everyday's become the new spectacular?  

Shields' new volume Fakes, for instance, co-edited with Matthew Volmer, makes an anthology of unlikely, not to mention made-up, forms of what we may not think to call "good writing," such as letters to a parking bureau, works cited, and faux-lectures, the last of which can arguably be found in Mary Ruefle's book as well, which challenges, to say the least, the meaning of an academic text by making visible the process of putting one together, letting the seams show, complete with Ruefle's reservations about the whole thing from the start. All of which begs the question: is there a form to acting naturally? 

In her poem "Monk Style", the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, writes Monk must/approach himself/at the bench/and sit awhile./Then slip his/hands into his/hands Monk/style, suggesting that there is at least a way of being that supports a way of being when it comes to being, or playing, yourself. Or however you might say that that doesn't make it sound like you're playing yourself. Poems, of course, have been accused of not playing by anything, much less the rules, for years, eschewing narrativity for flowing streams of consciousness, unweighted by the elements of story, such as plot, setting, and hail, while in fact relying heavily on form. Incidentally, my favorite book of poems this past year's a fine example of both old and new "poetic" attributes concussed in effort to conceptualize or re-imagine what a poem is. ROTC Kills contains internal rhyme, syllabic verse, and less obvious impediments to what I'll call live-streaming, such as titles. "Free Verse" makes sense, too, actually. And yet if there can be said to be a metaphor or image in a poem by John Koethe it's the poem as a whole; a sense aligned with memory, opposed to words written in retrospect, attempting to convey or breathe back to life the memory itself. Koethe's previous collections have been variously lauded and ignored for their achievement in presenting a facsimile of consciousness as rendered neither abstractly nor pretensiouly in language, a "poem of the mind," as Koethe calls it in a poem of the same name.

I asked John how he goes about making literal what the poet Edward Hirsch has described as "the sensation of thinking itself," in a recent interview. But the question of how far outside the box, how lifelike one can get onstage, in front of a live audience, as opposed to  a solitary and, even then, hypothetical reader didn't cross my mind, ironically enough, till Dessa took the stage and did her thing. As Saul Williams said that night, "My real work is not necessarily the work that I'm sharing with you. The work I share with you is the residue of what I make to, you know, eat." I think it's true that, in regard to writing anyway, we've come as readers, listeners, and booksellers who don't know how much the t-shirts cost, to expect a polished, ready to be iterated and reiterated combination of sentences. Music can be improvised; sports, from what I gather, simply start and end according to a stopwatch, with few to no restrictions otherwise, but literature, including film and, okay, musicals, I guess, are bound by scripts.

But what about the "real work" I wondered as I packed up Dessa's t-shirts, brushed off the beer and cigarettes, and snuck two of Saul Williams' biggest fans backstage, before driving off toward 94 down Cedar Avenue, back to the city that I love where literary events, much like football, I imagine, start and end no later than 8:30. Wasn't that, in part, what I'd just seen? Or was Dessa's performance less a spontaneous hybrid of hip-hop and literary influences than a pattern strung together by an invisible string? I wanted to know, if for no other reason than so I could get back to the heckler from The Walker with something like assurance that it's good to free our verse, even if it's bound to fail. That's when I called Dessa...

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