The ‘Alienating’ Art of the Camera: Questions with Karl Kirchwey

Lauren Peat for AGNI: “Speedlooker” (AGNI 86) is written from the first-person perspective of Ottomar Anschütz, developer of the focal-plane shutter. As the poem’s speaker, Anschütz suggests that his invention has “caused our first fall into alienation” (a reference to Susan Sontag’s On Photography). Where did the idea to assume the perspective of an earlier technological pioneer come about?

Karl Kirchwey: The long poem MUTABOR [of which “Speedlooker” is a part]…was the result of a trip I took in 2007 or so to the Italian-, French-, and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, with all three of which I have family/autobiographical ties. Upon my return to the United States, I began to contemplate a poem that would somehow explore the geography and both natural and human history of these three areas. Again for autobiographical reasons (the uncle for whom I was named was a pilot killed in the Pacific in WWII; my father flew on heavy bombers out of England in 1944-5), the history of aviation has been a recurrent theme in my work. It appears that Anschütz’s photos of storks taking off and landing provided a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, with the idea for the first airfoil (wing), later used by the Wright brothers. So aviation and photography are linked. Then I became interested in the effect of photography and film on our own experience of the world; crucial in this was my rereading Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which posits a shift in the nature of the human experience of the work of art, and the loss of the “aura” of that work with mechanical reproduction (cinema and film, for instance).

The poem has grown over these ten years to now comprise twenty sections and some 300 rhymed quatrain stanzas (about 1200 lines). The open-endedness of this project appeals to me strongly; I may write on any subject and discover that it has a place in the long poem, which at its most fundamental level addresses our human experience of change (mutability) and our desire to stop or transcend it (our knowledge that we are mortal)…. As someone who has always tried to get my facts straight and pay attention to sources, I also wanted MUTABOR to be a kind of dialogue between the poem text and a marginal text, which is part autobiographical commentary, part criticism, and part bibliography, acknowledging the poem’s sources.

LP/AGNI: Readers of “Speedlooker” will likely be reminded and/or led to reconsider modern technological advancements; I think of social media, for example, and the idea that although we may believe that such platforms “bring things closer,” they perhaps only make us “absentminded and distract[ed] / …part of a collective” in which the “self is only dispossessed, / never transcended.” While the poem suggests that these technologies have “murdered” the “aura” of something formerly holy, it also gestures toward the intoxicating quality of these technologies: the machine is described as having “seduced the unarmed eye.” Has the imaginative exercise of adopting Anschütz’s perspective caused you to rethink your own relationship to technology, and if so, how? Do you struggle with this double thrust (between disillusionment and attraction) personally?

Karl Kirchwey: Mine may be the last generation that can remember not being computer-literate. And even now I am, by choice, only barely computer-literate. Which is to say that I regard the internet as a great resource but e-mail as a kind of tyranny over my attention and energy; I take every opportunity I can to be off-line and (for example) reading the cold print of a book in the quiet space of my own mind. I do not use Facebook, Twitter, etc. But then, my social needs were conditioned by the ancient practices of talking to people and writing letters to people. Along with everyone else, I marvel at how easy communication has become (though tricky, too, as the difficulty of reading the tone of an e-mail makes clear), and I acknowledge that my two young adult children are encountering the world now, including the social world, in ways that are different from those I have chosen.

I think the long poem…is indeed addressing the “seduction” of the “unarmed eye” (that last phrase is Benjamin’s) with particular regard to the voyeuristic appetite we have for watching extreme on-screen violence, for example. I think we all struggle with what you call the “double thrust” between disillusionment, with the new technologies and their virtual reality, and attraction, even to looking at what some moral sense in us tells us is “forbidden.” Of course, “mechanical reproduction” does have redemptive or recuperative qualities, too; the MUTABOR section entitled “Palmyra”—available in the current issue of the BU journal ARION—explores these effects, whereby digital image archives have allowed us to reconstruct monuments destroyed by human barbarism. (This was the case of the destruction of the Roman Arch at Palmyra by ISIS, for instance, and its reconstruction by the Institute for Digital Archaeology.)

Again, with regards to my own relationship to technology, you already mentioned Sontag’s book On Photography, which I read as a meditation on our (lapsarian, Edenic, Satanic) seduction by looking. The background reading for the poem has led me to Barthes, Baudrillard and other thinkers as well; indeed, this is the first time that a poem of mine has been informed by a set of conscious philosophical propositions. Thus I suppose you could say that I have had to rethink my relationship to technology, but less with regard to gadgets than with regard to what a poet might spend his life exploring in poetry, which is beauty and its representation in art. And the religion of beauty (for all the hazards of a nineteenth-century Aestheticism attached to that term) is part of what my new book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems is all about.

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BillPattersonKKportrait(8.16)Karl Kirchwey has received the Rome Prize as well as NEA, Guggenheim, and Ingram Merrill grants and the Cato Prize for Poetry. His seventh book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems was published in October 2017, and his anthology Poems of Rome is forthcoming from Everyman’s Library in April 2018. He translated Paul Verlaine’s first book as Poems Under Saturn (2011) and has also translated work by Italian poets Giorgio Vigolo and Giovanni Giudici. His long poem-in-progress Mutabor (of which “Speedlooker” is a part) has been appearing in periodicals for the past ten years or so. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University, where he is serving as Interim Associate Dean for the Humanities in 2017-18. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

Peat PhotoNative to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI. Her work has appeared in Acta Victoriana and the UC Review.

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Coogee to Bronte Walk

by Judy Rowley

My favorite translation of coogee, which is said to have come from the Bidigal word koo-jah, is the smell of seaweed drying. There are other Aboriginal translations, too, mainly about smell or seaweed, but the general consensus is that, nowadays, no one really knows the meaning of coogee. The Aborigines, who used to live in the area in the 18th century, have all gone, driven out by white man’s plans and diseases, well before we understood how precious indigenous knowledge could be.

Coogee is the Australian beach, about thirty minutes from downtown Sydney, where I spend my American winters in an apartment high above the cliffs, hoping to write about something that will be as important to you as it is to me. At the beginning, I say to myself, you have three months, hop to it. Most days I walk towards Bondi, about ten miles further north, past Clovelly to Bronte, and Tamarama, all patrolled by lifeguards, each unique in its own right. I keep an eye out for whales and dolphins, water rips and cloud patterns. I admire the skills of surfboarders and let my mind wander as it wants. I don’t listen to anything except the sea and snatches of conversation of passers-by. Because I wear hearing aids and lip-read this can be either extremely funny or totally frustrating.

In June 2016 the (almost new) two million dollar elevated boardwalk between Clovelly and Bronte was disabled in a storm and has been closed to the public ever since. It was built to keep walkers and joggers from taking short cuts through the nearby cemetery. Plans for its restoration are scheduled and will take nine to twelve months to complete. Meanwhile, there is no avoiding it, one has to take a detour through the cemetery, often claimed to be one of the world’s most beautiful. Anyone can see why—the view is mindboggling—on my right, ocean of the deepest blue, rolling surf, skimming the rocks or smashing against limestone cliffs and a sky that expands to the horizon, conveying a troupe of ever-changing clouds. To my left, elegant crypts and memorials, many of which are of Edwardian or Victorian design, cascade down the hillside toward the sea. Forty one acres of stone and marble, intersected by seams of grass, take your breath away. An eye feast in any direction, but, of course, the dead cannot share in any of it.

I’m a sucker for cemeteries, and even more so now, as I take the detour and reacquaint myself with poets who lie there. I long ago came across Dorothea Mackellar, the poet who shares a plot and plaque with her brother, Major Mackellar. One would expect that the most famous lines from one of her poems, “My Country,” might be inscribed on the white marble.

I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains
Of rugged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains. 

But no, her name lies beneath her brother’s. She is not identified as a poet, and there is no reference to the poem that all Australian school children learn, which brings to the heart an identical sentimental lurch as the words of Samuel Francis Smith

My country tis of thee
Sweet Land of liberty
Of thee I sing 

The cemetery has been the location of many movies and television programs, and eleven American Civil War veterans are buried here. I don’t know why; maybe there’s a story there. I imagine they came in search of gold, which was discovered in the 1800s. Henry Kendall, who wrote poems about the bush and nature has an appropriate memorial, but Henry Lawson’s grave is low key. Still, the words Australian Poet and Story Writer are inscribed on a plaque above his ledger. He died a poor man but eventually the city recognized him with a bronze statue of himself with a swagman and dog. Today, Lawson is regarded as the most outstanding of Australian colonial writers. I checked out his stories, which he calls sketches. He claimed that sketches were the best way of telling a story. Yes, they’re short.

I don’t always continue to Bondi. That’s a story of itself. I turn back at Bronte, which is disappointingly named for Duke of Bronte, a foreign war hero, and not the Bronte sisters. Usually my walk inspires me to head to my desk and not the cookie jar, to make some sense of an overheard conversation or to work on a poem. A new idea can spring from the unshackled mind. That’s the plan.

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Rowley406612007-017Judy Rowley’s essays, which include “Light,” (AGNI Online), have been published in several journals. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Venus on a Ferris Wheel. Her memoir, Expected Home, is in the works and will be available early in 2018. She has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Manhattanville College, NY and an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. Judy lives in Connecticut, USA, but often visits Sydney, where she was born.

Love and Androids: Questions for Julianna Baggott

in response to Baggott’s story “The Velveteen Lover, or How Androids Become Real” (AGNI 86)

Grace Yun for AGNI: How do you think technology changes aspects of writing about love? What is your take on dating apps or movies like Marjorie Prime or Her?

If you put the amount of words that my 17-year-old writes to his girlfriend on a given day via text and put it alongside a Victorian courtship, those two groups would have similar word counts. Whereas my generation in courting had very few written words. We talked. So, texting in particular feels old school and writerly. The kind of language has shifted. Emojis are efficient. And I’m definitely not walking around assuming my son’s texts read like a Victorian courtship. Neither did my corded landline phone calls. Still and all, love is love. I don’t know that it changes very drastically. It might not even change much with an AI. It didn’t in HER.

GY/AGNI: What was so striking about your Velveteen lover character was his very human desire to become real. What was the process of creating these toy-characters like, especially the Velveteen lover? Was there any anxiety in creating him?

As this story is a re-envisioning of The Velveteen Rabbit, much of what was given to me by the formal constraints of trying to stay as close as possible to the original informed the characterization.

Of course, a velveteen rabbit and a velveteen AI sex toy don’t seem to have very much in common on the surface. But the more tightly I forced myself to adhere to the original work, the more interesting the characters became. The slightly antiquated language and unusual descriptions created a strange and strained world. The formal choice at the start was a serious bit of world building. There was no anxiety in that, only collaborative playfulness. I’ll likely never have another writing process like it ever again.

GY/AGNI: What is a toy you truly cherished and loved?

There was this field goal kicker who wore a helmet that you could smash and he’d kick. I loved him because I’d desperately wanted the gift as seen on TV and because he was immediately taken over by my father and brother who smashed his head too hard and broke him on Christmas morning. So, I never got to play with the toy.

This admission now makes me wonder if my entire story is a masked tale of my unrequited love. I am uncomfortable.

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AGNI JBJulianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books, including two New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Pure and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. Her latest is a collection of poems called Instructions, Abject & Fuming. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, AGNI, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere, and read on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She is a professor of screenwriting at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts and faculty director at Vermont College of Fine Arts. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

 

GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

Between a Book and its Cover: Room for Conversation

by David Ebenbach

I feel for Joan Wong. It must have been intimidating, the prospect of designing a cover for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, a slim volume about the complicated relationship between books and their covers, and also about how much Lahiri dislikes the covers of her books. She calls them generally “upsetting.” She says, “They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me….There is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me almost a violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.”

LahiriLahiri is not likely talking about Wong’s design—in which the book is made to resemble a cartoon denim jacket—if only because she didn’t seem to know what the cover would look like when she wrote the text. Late in the book she just says, “The American edition will wear its cover, the Italian another.” Nothing beyond that. And so maybe all Wong can do is wonder what Lahiri thinks of her work.

I’ll admit it: my sympathies incline toward Wong on this, because Lahiri’s testiness sometimes comes off as unchecked privilege. Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of author whose name sells zillions of books all by itself, no matter what else is on the cover (or underneath it). As evidence, consider the fact that I paid money for The Clothing of Books, which a book that only reaches seventy-one pages, and only gets there because of very small pages, a great big font, and generous spacing. It’s basically a longform essay—the kind of thing you might read in an issue of the Atlantic—packaged as a book. You get to do that when you’re Jhumpa Lahiri. And so when she writes, “I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike,” I don’t find myself crying lots of rivers on her behalf.

On the other hand, I am a fan of Lahiri’s fiction, and she also makes some good points in this essay. For one thing, there’s the ugly way in which her work is sometimes covered in visual stereotypes—either saris or American flags, depending on what aspect of her identity is being targeted. And of course her work is not alone in receiving this treatment. A Korean-American friend of mine points out how Asian writers’ books always seem to feature a picture of an Asian woman from behind, so that you can look at some shiny, black hair—or they feature an Asian person’s eye. For Jewish books, it’s got to be bagels, six-pointed stars, or black hats. For African writers it’s all acacia trees and setting suns. So, that’s a place where Lahiri’s word “upsetting” describes my reaction, too.

At a more general level, there’s the fact that a cover’s “function is much more commercial than aesthetic….if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.” If stereotypes end up on covers, in other words, that must mean that stereotypes sell; anything that ends up on a big-publisher-book must be there in order to sell copies. Lahiri publishes with big publishers, of course, and their focus on the bottom line means they probably do put a lot of pressure on her to accept commercially-appealing jackets. And what gets lost is the possibility of an image that simply “reflect[s] the sense and style of the book.” Or, also lost, the possibility that the text and the cover could end up in an interesting creative conversation with one another.

All of my personal experience has been with small presses, places that may not have a marketing person, let alone a marketing department. They don’t have the staff to sit around a conference table and debate the commercial potential of various images. In fact, the process usually begins with an editor asking the author, “Hey—do you have any ideas for what you want on the cover?”

People Who Moved front cover jpgThis is, then, one of the advantages of working with small presses: if you want there to be an interesting conversation between the cover and the book, you have some say in that. Three of my books, for example, feature paintings by artist David Guinn on the front, because I was able to suggest those paintings to my editors. David is a very close friend—a creative brother—and we have been in an ongoing creative conversation with one another for almost three decades now. We’ve talked about the purpose of creativity, about the way our emotional lives inform what we do and vice versa, and about so many other things. When I look at those three books on my shelf, I see the continuation of that long, wandering dialogue. And I see that my writing changes his paintings and that his paintings change my writing, in ways neither of us could have predicted when we separately set out to do our work, not anticipating that it would end up literally bound together.

Miss Portland -- cover -- front jpgOr there’s my novel, Miss Portland, set in Maine, and inspired in part by my mother and her approach to life. The image on that book’s cover is a photo by my mother, who was, among other things, a talented amateur photographer. She died three years ago, and there is something deeply wonderful about the experience of her work and my work talking to each other, including talking about things that she and I were never quite able to say to each other as people, things about the challenges of making your way through a world equipped only with your small collection of skills and aspirations and courage.

Cover (front) -- The Artist's TorahOr take the cover to my non-fiction book The Artist’s Torah. I didn’t have any say in this design choice, actually, though probably only because I didn’t assert myself; Wipf and Stock probably would have listened to me if I had made a suggestion. But now here was a book that was almost demanding a stereotype—bagels, black hats, etc.—and yet the publishing house came up with a cover of fire, like the whole book was fire. Well, Torah, in mystical literature, has been referred to as black fire on white fire, so it was a tremendously thoughtful and beautiful choice, and it put my work into deeper dialogue with mystical tradition.

Covers can go wrong, obviously. I was once looking at some possibilities for a short story collection of mine that was all about parenting, and one of those possibilities—not a painting by David Guinn—elicited this response from a friend: “When I see this, I think ‘child murder.’” Which is to say that not all creative conversations are good ones (e.g., between a book about parenting and a cover that suggests “Maybe somebody should kill our kids”). So again I was lucky that I had a say and could move things in a different direction.

For her part, in The Clothing of Books Lahiri expresses a longing for “the naked book”—the book with a blank cover or no cover—so that the text might be appreciated and understood for itself, and only itself. And I understand that longing. But I also like the fact that a book is a multimedia object, that its full expression is not entirely verbal. Even ebooks, which Lahiri seems to relish for the way they deemphasize their covers, are full of visual choices, in terms of font, spacing, size, and so on. Books are inescapably multimedia; the only way to consume the book without any visual input is either to hear it read aloud or to read it in braille, which are both sensory experiences of their own.

Again, this multimedia collaboration can go wrong, but we cannot avoid the collaboration. And so why not embrace it, and get actively involved in it? Granted, it’s complicated; instead of a writer and visual artist working directly together, there’s a publisher in the middle, and often that publisher has an understandable profit motive. But lots and lots of good things happen, too. And they do become part of the work, whether we want them to or not. As Lahiri herself says, “Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end up feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.”

Late in the essay, Lahiri asks, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist.” And of course she’s right, which is why I think we should change the question, should stop looking for perfection and start looking for conversation.

The first step, in any case, is a conversation about the conversation, which gets jump-started by Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books—and which is in the rest of our hands to pursue further.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

What Really Happened? Making Life Into Literature

by Alisa Wolf

I should be working on my memoir today. There’s no reason I can’t pick up where I left off yesterday, with my teenage self, in the woods, at night. The toes of a hiking boot—and then the toes of the other boot—are lit in the beam of a flashlight, as I walk from the staff cabin at the wilderness camp to the bathrooms. That walk happened, but the boot in the beam of the flashlight—as probable as it is—is not, strictly speaking, remembered. I made that part up. Chances are I stumbled through the woods thinking thoughts that had nothing to do with whatever my feet were up to.

Then why did I write it that way, and why do I think it’s important to keep it? The short answer to both questions is: it serves a literary purpose. As I sat with the scene yesterday, the story needed slowing down, to be grounded. I can’t fully explain what happens when I’m writing and I follow an impulse that feels right. I don’t always understand why a story makes its demands, but when it does, I’ve learned to go with it.

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor fiction. I’m not making flagrant claims, like Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments did, in his memoir about a Polish, Jewish boy who survives a Nazi death camp. It turned out he isn’t Jewish, or even Polish, let alone a Holocaust survivor. I was, without a doubt, the girl in the woods, taking a break from the staff cabin and its roaring fire, the cigarettes and marijuana, and a jug of wine being passed around. No one is going to argue about whether I noticed that my flashlight lit up the toe of my boot. Yet something still bothers me. I’m feeling nervous about the liberty I’ve taken with “what really happened.”

Is it dishonest to tinker, in however a minor way, with the stuff of my life? I recreate conversations I can’t possibly remember verbatim, change names, and rely on memories I’ve gone over and over again, surely distorting them in the process. On the other hand, it’s no use worrying about how people will receive a book that may never see print. But what I’m more afraid of than being caught out is that the bit of wisdom I’m trying to uncover is actually self-deception.

Vivian Gornick, author of the mother-daughter memoir, Fierce Attachments, and the well-loved memoir-writing book, The Situation and the Story, sees deviations from what actually happened as memoirists’ prerogative. “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters,” she wrote in an essay, defending her use of composite characters. She cites memoirs acknowledged to be masterpieces by authors as diverse as Edmund Gosse, who recounted conversations that supposedly took place when he was eight years old, to George Orwell, who was denounced for inaccuracies in his account of his school days in “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

In Gornick’s view, the problem is not with the memoirists but with readers’ expectations. “Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism.” She doesn’t go so far as to condone memoirists like Wilkomirski, who invent pasts they never had. She makes a distinction between inventing a narrative out of whole cloth, as Wilkomirski did, and composing, which is what she did when working with, as she says, “a narrative drawn entirely from the materials of my own experience.”

Other memoirists, too, are unapologetic about shaping narratives out of the raw materials of their lives. David Sedaris was trashed in The New Republic for making stuff up about ten years ago, around the time James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair were being publicly shamed for doing what appeared, to his critics, to be the same thing. Did the fact that he survived where the others fell have to do with being a humor writer, which makes us more forgiving? Or was it because his exaggerations were more along the lines of what Gornick calls “composing” from experience versus inventing a past that wasn’t what really happened?

There’s that phrase again, “what really happened,” the idea that keeps stopping me when I’m feeling most connected to my work. I’m haunted by Margo Jefferson, who in her memoir, Negroland, writes: “I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”

Am I doing that?

How can I not? My temperament, ego, and self-image are all part of the story. And my life is not a story until I find what the story is. Like Hansel and Gretel, I wander in the woods, pausing to shine a light on my childhood and adolescence while taking stock of the world around me and my place in it, then and now.

To avoid confusion, I could call what I’m writing “realish,” as Sedaris does, or “based on a true story,” as they say in the movies. Or I could continue to keep Vivian Gornick nearby and remind myself of what a memoirist owes the reader, which, as she writes, “is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

I don’t know why I’m a memoirist and not a fiction writer—I often wish it were otherwise. But that’s the way it is. If I want whatever bit of truth I have achieved in my work to reach a reader, I have to be faithful to the story I’m telling. Ironically, the demands of literature—for drama, narrative drive, and conflict—are what stop me from being wholly self-serving in the way Jefferson derides. Self-pity makes for a boring read.

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AlisaWolf_MayAlisa Wolf’s work has appeared in AGNI Online, The Billfold, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

October Light

by Christopher Benfey

The poet Richard Wilbur died on October 14, at age 96. Almost exactly two years earlier, on another beautiful October day, I had attended a lunch in Wilbur’s honor, in the venerable Western Massachusetts hill town of Ashfield. Hosting the gathering, in their 18th-century farmhouse in the woods, were Susan and Richard Todd, old friends of Wilbur’s, who lived nearby in Cummington. I had mentioned to Susan that I was writing a book about Kipling and America, and that Kipling had, in the company of his father, visited Charles Eliot Norton at his summer place in Ashfield. Soon after, Susan heard Wilbur mention his own fondness for Kipling. Hence the lunch. Among the other guests were Mary and Robert Bagg, Wilbur’s biographers, and David Sofield, who taught a verse-writing class at Amherst College with Wilbur, a 1942 Amherst graduate. The next day, a friend asked me for an account of the occasion. I sent him the following email:

A big calm presence, eyes awake but more inscrutably blue than twinkling, the way I imagine Emerson late in life, when the big empty spaces had moved into parts of his brain. Wilbur seems all there, but where there is isn’t always entirely clear. “Dick, how is your cat?” “You mean Leo?” “Yes.” “He’s fine.” “What kind of cat is he?” “Asiatic.” “Siamese?” “No.” “What’s he like?” “Well, what sort of attributes does one look for in a cat?” (I did like this last question of Wilbur’s.) At which point our host, Dick Todd, said, “Yes, how would a cat on the prowl advertise himself in the Cat Personals?”

The pretext for the lunch, which went on for four hours, with lots of good wine, was a brief conversation, at some party in the summer, between me and Susan Todd. Susan had said that Wilbur reads Kipling every night. So, there I was to pop the question. But Wilbur had about as much to say about Kipling as about Leo. “Yes, Kipling, he does have force, doesn’t he? He’s a good writer for children…. I wouldn’t say I read him every night. But Sofield says Kipling is all right.” Sofield happened to be at the lunch, too. He winced at my mispronunciation of “ignominy.” But I’m not sure how I pronounced it or how he did. Also, Chris Wilbur, a vague large friendly man of maybe 70 who lives in Arlington and has retired from “coding for Lotus” to work on Kabbalah and Tarot. My ears perked up. Turns out he’s a huge Alistair Crowley fan. I couldn’t follow him there, no sirree. Do you know Dick Todd? Tracy Kidder’s editor and close friend. They just put out a book together, Good Prose. Very nice guy. At the end of the lunch, we all went outside to right the steel trash container tipped over by bears.

So ends the email. Actually, at the end of the lunch there were toasts and tributes. When it was my turn, I told a brief story about my father-in-law, an Amherst classmate of Wilbur’s. Wilbur had heard that Duffy was quite the wag. When they were first introduced, Wilbur said, “So, I hear you’re supposed to be clever, Rathbun. Say something funny.” I told the gathering that after my mother-in-law died, Duffy named a racehorse he had bred “June Light,” since Wilbur’s sonnet of that title (in memory of his own wife, Charlee) reminded him of Sheilah. I then read the poem aloud, with its lovely opening: “Your voice, with clear location of June days,/ Called me—outside the window. You were there.” I’m always tempted to misread “location” as “locution.” And I hear Wilbur’s clear, slow voice and see his face, “as legible as pearskin’s fleck and trace.”

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benfey7Christopher Benfey teaches at Mount Holyoke. He has published five books about the American Gilded Age along with a family memoir, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.