Tricycle: On Truth, Memory, and Making Memoir

by Greg Bottoms

IMG_0389When I look this morning at the iconic photograph of a rusted tricycle in a driveway in front of two small brick houses on the cover of William Eggleston’s collection Guide, I consider starting a short memoir with an image of my own tricycle. Here, so it seems, is an object, a referent, from my childhood.

But my childhood doesn’t exist, not really—though, of course, it once did. It is now a set of unfixed images, fading stills of a time and place, which only develop when I call them forth, hold them up in the light of present consciousness, and then only for a second before they morph quickly into a kind of truth/fiction blend—memory’s shards with the help of imagination’s integrative force, pieces of the past repositioned and repurposed in the present.

In other words, I am a memoirist “looking” not through a viewfinder but through a fog of subjectivity, the necessities of linguistic construction, the human meaning-making impulse, and the tunnel of time. At the far end of all this is memory’s chosen topic—my tricycle—potential writing material, a blurry image against a dark background of nothingness, all the things I don’t remember.

From this apprehended image, I can use facts, my personal history, what I know, or think I know—more material from memory—as a context and a backdrop. These, too, can be dubious, however. What about all the forces that warp and bend this context? My protective delusions, my defensiveness, my self-justifications? My biological brain health? My emotional and psychological stability? Is my relationship to reality roughly akin to my intended and mostly imagined reader’s? Neuroscience tells us that it is what we forget as much as what we remember that forms our identity, our ever-evolving self.

So: A few things I can say with certainty as the cursor winks roughly in syncopation with my heartbeat: I lived in a house like the two visible in the photograph until I was seven. I had a tricycle like the one in the photograph. Rust on the bars. Hard rubber wheels. It is as if William Eggleston took hundreds of photographs of my life and memories.

Now as I “look” at my own tricycle in my memory in an attempt to capture it here in writing, make a little story of it, or at the very least describe it, my mind—I’m just letting it (my mind) go where it goes—veers toward a friend of mine from that time, when I lived in that house, named Nicky, a little Italian-American kid with a vocabulary like a hardcore rapper. I’m thinking that Nicky and I rode tricycles together. Must have. Otherwise why remember this? I think we did for a second, but then I realize, in the next second, this second, essentially mid-mental-construction of what could become a sentence, that I probably didn’t know him until first grade when we were too old to be riding tricycles.

I’ve just remembered something else.

Nicky’s dad owned the one pornographic theatre in Newport News, Virginia, (I need to fact-check this) and I used to play with him until my mom put two and two together, as they say, and she realized that this Nicky had a father named Nicky and this father named Nicky had been in the newspaper because some church groups wanted to close his theatre down. Big Nicky was the local champion of porn. I was friends with his kid. My mom was a good Methodist—my family studiously church-going. It was a short relationship.

Thing is, it now emerges out of the attic of my mind that Nicky—little Nicky, I mean—had a copper-orange 70s banana-seat cruiser, and he could ride it even though it was huge, an adult bike really, or a teenage bike anyway, and he was only seven.

I came to believe—this I remember very clearly, though I think we’ve established that in no way makes it so—that anyone who knew the words “fuck” and “dildo” and even “blow job” at seven and could ride an adult bike, a pretty sexy adult bike frankly…that there was a one-to-one correlation—i.e., advanced dirty vocabulary, advanced bike-riding skills. I believed that the fact that I couldn’t say those words because I didn’t know what they meant and my mom wouldn’t let me anyway was keeping me, somehow, on a little kid bike.

Now I love all kinds of language. I love, even, or at least sometimes, filthy language because of its subversive power, and the reason this is so, or at least the reason this is so in the moment of my thinking about it now, probably partly goes back to the times in my driveway and on the sidewalk in front of my house—the house in Eggleston’s photograph, but not quite—when Nicky, filthy-mouthed porn-theatre Nicky, was riding on his big bike, which seemed to me to be powered by his magic and awesomely shocking words.

I sat down an hour ago, looked at the cover of a book of photographs, and tried to remember my tricycle, or to use an image of a tricycle as a stand in for my tricycle and a kind of prompt, as a way to get started writing from memory and in a particular direction about a place and a time in my life, which I do think has rich material to be mined in regards to social class, race, the South, customs, culture, values, mores, beliefs, and the everyday rituals of American life and how they situate us, comfort us, carry us. Instead I ended up with Nicky, dirty words, and a big copper-orange, banana-seat bike. No tricycle anywhere near here. And now I’m not sure the kid’s name was Nicky. Maybe it was Mikey.

The cursor keeps winking on the white plane of the page. I’m thinking now that I’d be better off to write a cultural history essay on the one porn theatre in Newport News in the mid-1970s and the politics and social upheaval that arose around it. Or I could write some kind of more reflective or argumentative essay on the uses and value of foul language.

But I want to delve into the past, I want to write a story, and I want to write from and explore memory. I want to think about memory’s procedures. It is hard, though, to defend memoir, unlike photography, as sturdily “nonfiction” on even the most rudimentary philosophical grounds. Narrative writing from experience does not actually capture life; it replaces it with facsimile, the success of which has a lot to do with how slick this magic trick of facsimile, of creative writing skill, is performed. Again, my childhood doesn’t exist, though it once did. Call it fiction? I can’t. That feels like a bigger, more intentional lie in a different way.

Memoir, to me, must use facts, all that is or was real and available, as a skeleton and then adhere to the truth of thought, and of symbolic or felt truth, but it can only be honest, truly honest, if it acknowledges, on the page, in the text, the problematic relationship between memory and the ever-receding lived reality it is meant to describe. What Jean Cocteau said of himself is the best description of literary memoir I know: “I am a lie that always tells the truth.”

A memoir that rigidly abided by the narrow contemporary definitions of “nonfiction”—a word that should probably have a permanent place inside of quotation marks in the 21st century—would look something like the above paragraphs—a stuttering, digressive, self-reflexive anti-memoir, a memoir that progresses while obliterating its own existence.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

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Fail Better: How to Succeed at Writing Without Really Succeeding

by David Ebenbach

To be a writer is to give up on any hope of attaining perfection.

And that’s actually a good thing.

As a matter of fact, perfection is the wrong goal in the first place. As psychologist Brad Johnson and sociologist David Smith note, “Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs….In their quest to avoid mistakes, perfectionists stifle their creativity and avoid taking necessary risks.”

Instead of perfectionism, we’ve got to be open to failure. In her book Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg wrote, “It was important to give myself permission to fail. It is the only way to write. We can’t live up to anyone’s high standards, including our own.” In fact, according to novelist Will Self, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail—the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short.” And then author Anne Enright: “I have no problem with failure—it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in.”

But is this just more perfectionism? Do these authors actually have impossibly high standards that they could never possibly meet? No, and here’s why not: These authors live with imperfection. They don’t only dwell in it as they work; they put that “failed” work out there in the world, which is the kind of thing a perfectionist could never do. And these writers fail because they’re trying to make something real, something living and breathing. Nothing alive is perfect. (Consider this: our food and water pipe is immediately next to our breathing pipe!)

These authors fail because they would rather have something alive than perfect.

I’ve certainly never done anything perfectly. I’m proud of my work, but I’ve never written anything that came out exactly as I’d have hoped. The closest I came was a story I once wrote called “This Is This Story”—I wrote it in one clean go, and once it was out, I thought, “Yes—that’s basically what I was trying to say.” The only problem is that it was a boring story. It was a very boring story because it did what I wanted it to do, like a machine. I ultimately made sure “This Is This Story” did not end up in my collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories.

So there’s the paradox: the perfect is boring, what we already know is boring, and the only interesting thing is the living imperfection.

Again, this is a good thing. According to writer David Zahl: “The mistakes in a work of art are not flaws so much as footholds for identification and sympathy.”

And back to Will Self: “This is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success.”

For her part, Natalie Goldberg tries to reframe the concept: “Failure is a hard word for people to take. Use the word kindness then instead. Let yourself be kind. And this kindness comes from an understanding of what it is to be a human being. Have compassion for yourself when you write. There is no failure—just a big field to wander in.”

Well, then, what does wandering look like? According to Grace Paley, “The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.”

As for which questions, David Zahl offers a few: “Failure reframes the questions the artist asks themselves. Instead of what should I create or who should I be, you ask what am I creating? Who am I? If I can’t say what I should say effectively, what do I want to say? These, by the way, are the more difficult questions—and ones which never receive a complete answer. Which is why they’re also more fructifying.”

So, the second step (the first step was to abandon perfectionism) is to ask yourself: what do you care about? (Feel free to pause and do a twenty minute free-write on the question. This article will still be here when you’re done.)

The third step is to risk diving into the unknown. You’re not looking for something easy to solve. In fact, what you’re looking for might not be solvable at all. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from painter Philip Pearlstein: “I don’t see why painting should get easier. Someone once said that, in a sense, an artist needs a problem he can’t solve. The lucky ones get into a problem that is unsolvable, so they keep going and there’s a growth, evolution.” Or here’s some additional excellent advice from Paley: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

(Here you could pause to make a list of all the things you don’t understand about the things you care about.)

Understand that this perspective isn’t cynicism; it’s hope. When you let go of perfectionism, you allow the possibility of something great happening. Or, in the words of Samuel Beckett, from his pretty baffling piece Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

That’s our job: to fail better—more interestingly, more passionately, with more life, getting closer to what we really care about—than we used to fail. That kind of failure is infinitely better than perfection.

AGNI Monkey

2017-03-23 02 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.

The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude

by Melanie Rae Thon

Love is life ~ All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love ~ Everything is, everything exists, only because I love ~
~ Leo Tolstoy

Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I once called a “Book of Wonders” and now, in my age of awe, refer to as “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.

New words and phrases—poiesis, indolent infection, fastidious microbe—bring bemusement and revelation: words themselves amplify what I am able to perceive in the world. Photographs illuminate the gospel; lines of half-remembered poetry enter: the tulips are too excitable. It is spring here, not winter; still, I am nobody. I have never been so pure. I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me. Long ago Sylvia Plath’s lines pierced me with intimate despair: in my age of gratitude & grace, tulips blaze gold and orange, immaculate white, deepest violet: there is no happiness like mine: two rogue red tulips bloom at the edge of the creek: they enclose and unclose me, open my most secret self, petal by petal. . . . Even now, opened by love, I know if it be their wish to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of these flowers imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending.

The gospel feeds my life as a writer, teacher, sister, friend, daughter—as a customer at the grocery store, a stunned patient walking the corridors of a hospital—I am all; I am nothing—just one more transient being trying to understand infinities of sorrow, learning to surrender, hoping to find peace in this unbidden surge of co-passion with the afflicted everywhere. We are vast and devastated by and by. A PICC line from arm to heart opens me petal by petal, cell by cell to the broken world. I know it is a mistake to call the light tender, but not wrong now to feel its indiscriminate love touching my mouth, the bones of my ears, my heart, my fingers.

In my age of grief, I am unknowing of everything.

One brutal Boston winter, I filled the pages with blizzards and birds, a sculpture of starved horses, my frigid attic room, a hundred homeless children. They entered my dreams, cold hands on bare skin, and I tried to tell their stories. I needed to imagine how they survived on the street while I struggled to stay warm in my apartment. Pigeons flapped at my tiny window. The snow melted and froze, and another storm roared in from the Atlantic.

The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and contemplation required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.

Write every day for the rest of your lives! Fill your pages with fiddlers swaying in the wind and white roses waving. Don’t forget the lizard with its crooked tail or the cactus wren nesting in your mother’s teapot. Eat poetry! Let Ink run from the corners of your mouth! Lift lines you love, photographs you’ve taken. Make a cento, an erasure, a collage. Draw what you’ve seen or not seen whether or not you think you are good at it.

Intoxicated joy teaches us to pay attention. All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

I see an ant carrying a dead moth, and another one lifting the bleached leg of a crawdad. What is my strength compared with yours? I see a whole tribe of ants, each one holding a single pink petal. They move in a meandering line across the sidewalk. Some carry their blossoms straight above their heads, floral crowns of rose and purple. The petals are five times the size of the ants and seem to float around them. That’s what I notice first, floating petals—and then, those astonishing beings beneath them! I follow the ants down a slope to discover they are covering their little hill with torn flowers. I don’t know why—do the petals keep the anthill moist and cool, safe from the blazing sun of Arizona—are the ants drunk with sweet scent—enchanted by the silky texture?

Years later, a vision comes to me at the edge of sleep, an utter profusion of flowers—bed, floor, walls, ceiling—each petal glowing as if lit from inside, so luminous they cannot hold their shapes: they dissolve into particles of light until they are only fiery sparks surrounded by vast darkness.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

I realize I have had my own vision of Rabbi Luria’s description of the beginning of the universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our shattered world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Notes :

Taking many liberties in phrasing, ellipses, and punctuation, I have lifted and transformed lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (the tulips are too excitable . . . ); Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”; (there is no happiness . . . Eat poetry . . . Let ink run . . . ); “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” (they enclose and unclose . . . if it be their wish . . . i and my life . . . ) by e.e. cummings; and Michael Martone’s “4 Fe + 302 —› 2 Fe203” (we are vast and devastated . . . ). Paul Maclean’s words (All there is to thinking . . . ) are quoted by his brother Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It.

In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy keeps what she calls a “Gospel of Wrath,” which has led me and my students to contemplate titles for our own apocryphal gospels.

AGNI Monkey

Melanie Rae by Andi editedMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song, The 7th Man, and The Good Samaritan Speaks. As a teacher and writer, she is devoted to the celebration of diversity from a multitude of human and nonhuman perspectives, shattering traditional limits of narrative consciousness as she interrogates the repercussions of exile, slavery, habitat loss, genocide, and extirpation in the context of mystery and miracle, the infinite wonder of cosmic abundance. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Murderous Edge: Three Questions with Gail Mazur

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Your portrait of the German artist and designer Josef Albers (in “Josef Albers,” AGNI 87) is addressed to an enigmatic second-person subject; though I initially read the poem as being addressed to a student of Albers’ (in their “cold shared studio”), it could also be interpreted as a self-address. The more time I spend with the poem, the more I lean toward this second interpretation—particularly because its clipped lines and staccato rhythms (as well as its ultimate, breathless conclusion) is an ingenious performance of Albers’ “brutal…wisdom”:

becoming an artist
you need to know
would be a ruthless life
you need to take
what your art needs
theft and murder….

Considering how convincingly the poem enacts the classic writer’s workshop adage “kill your darlings,” how much of the poem’s artistic attitude is performative? To quote Oscar Wilde: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Do you consider the poem to be primarily a portrait of Albers, or is there something of your own philosophy within it?

Gail Mazur: Of course, although he was an abstract artist, Albers was speaking figuratively! He wasn’t homicidal.

When my husband, Michael, was an art student at Yale, Albers had retired from teaching, but he hired Michael to print a (beautiful) inkless intaglio print of his (Albers’) on the art department’s etching press. They worked together for a few days printing the full edition. Albers’ color course at Yale, his color theory, had a profound influence on a generation’s painting. He was a born teacher. When he said, “When you steal, kill,” he was talking about how ruthless you have to be in your standards for your work—and about how, when we are influenced—as we all have to be—by artists whose work we love, we must move beyond imitating their work. Of course, partly, maybe mostly, he meant it competitively—Do even better, beat them at their game!—but also, more importantly, make the work your own.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Temperamentally, Albers shows a similar bracing ruthlessness, with a murderous edge! When they “kill,” artists could change the Conversation. I can hear Albers, his Germanic accent, sounding absolutely—or needing to be—sure that his brilliant Homages to the Square were changing the narrative in his time.

We don’t necessarily want to erase the source! So much from (writers) we admire enters our own poems—when we look at a painting, read poetry, hear music, isn’t it a joy to experience the sources, the history of the art itself? Depends on how well the theft is incorporated!

(Yogi Berra said, “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”)

LP/AGNI: Originally from Bottrop, Germany, Albers experienced the Nazis’ ascent to power firsthand, studying and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus art school until its closure in 1933, due to Nazi pressure. He subsequently fled to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1976. How do you understand Albers’ “brutal…wisdom” in the context of the mass atrocity of World Wars I and II?

GM: I didn’t mean to imply in “Josef Albers” that his personal history—his wife, Anni, the really revolutionary textile artist, was Jewish, and so to the Nazis, he himself might as well have been—influenced his “brutal wisdom.” But. But.

To a young artist like my husband, what Albers said was shocking and bracing, as it was to me. A kind of ferocious permission to be ruthless in your art. I think master artists, beside Picasso, must have always thought that way!

LP/AGNI: Albers taught at Yale University until 1958; your poem depicts a scene in New Haven, in 1959. As a teacher of poetry yourself, do you think Albers’ philosophy is incompatible with the art of teaching? How does a practicing artist mentor younger artists and advocate for their work if their professed business is “theft and murder”?

GM: No, I think implied in what he says is the need for students to steep themselves in the histories of art, to be in lifelong dialogue with art.

Well, the way to be ruthless with one’s own work is to be relentless with yourself. Not to be too easily satisfied. To be merciless. (That’s where the instruction to “kill your darlings” has come in. It’s not near what Albers was saying, but it’s a warning not be soft on yourself, to be as objective as you can be in the re-making.) A work of art might not be fierce, but sometimes, in the process of making, the maker must be cold-blooded, relentlessly dissatisfied. Until it’s the best one can do. Sometimes that’s torment, until it’s exultation.

A mentor will always be urging younger artists to look, look, look, listen, listen, read, read, read! Albers was a profoundly influential teacher, a great teacher. Difficult, maybe tyrannical, but great.

AGNI Monkey

MazurGail_S16-credit-Morgan-Lacasse 2Gail Mazur’s books of poetry include They Can’t Take That Away from Me (finalist for the National Book Award; Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems, winner of The Massachusetts Book Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize; Figures in a Landscape; and Forbidden City. She’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute . and the Radcliffe Institute and has been Distinguished Senior Writer in Residence in Emerson College’s graduate program and Visiting Faculty in Boston University’s MFA Program. She teaches a week-long summer workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where she serves on the Writing Committee. See what she’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.

We Are Magic Talking to Itself

by Rachel DeWoskin

Frank Bidart once said about “confessional” poems, that “art, not candor, makes a poem.” He was arguing (rightly) that Robert Lowell’s seeming candor was artful, and poems should be read for their art, rather than the value of what may be shocking in them. This seems an important distinction when reading Sexton and Plath, women considered groundbreaking for their “confessing.” My poem “Without” (in AGNI 87) is an homage to Sexton and Plath, whose work is shaped by brilliant artifice and technical care. They employ confessional voices and fictionalized I’s, in order to address a you at once personal and public. In my favorite poems, “You, Doctor Martin,” and “Morning Song,” Sexton and Plath (ostensibly) address a therapist and a newborn baby, yet those variable and elastic you’s also imply, invite, and implicate readers. Their poetry translates material potentially too taboo to be discussed in any way less lyrical: sex, suicide, illness, madness, and motherhood.

In the acts of Sexton’s and Plath’s poems, each poet is both the I and the you, doctor, patient, baby, writer and reader. This synthesis permits a more powerful POV and position than any possible without the trick of first and second pronoun work. Confessional poetry gives women a way to align our lives, full of the particular difficulties of any individual life, and also the shared contradictions and complexities that are the substance of all human endeavors.

As readers and addressees of second person poems, we are at once confided in and made vulnerable in a way that mimics that in which the poets are simultaneously confessing and obfuscating with their poetic uses of “I.” We must hide and own up, too. The real Dr. Martin, Sexton’s therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, distinguished fiercely between Sexton as a poet and Sexton as a person, favoring “the real Anne Sexton,” whose work he considered distinct from her person. He described writing as what she did, in opposition to what or who she was. She, on the other hand, considered her poetry collaborative work (with Orne) and part of her identity.

Orne argued against blurring the boundaries between Sexton’s poetic and real selves, but fusion may in fact be the purpose and transcendent magic of confessional poetry. Both the content and form are subversive, and it is precisely the studied, intentional intimacy that forces readers to look directly at the subject matter and subjects of confessional poems. And, importantly, to consider ourselves as possibly among those subjects. Confessional poems, maybe counterintuitively, enforce literary empathy.

Sexton opens her asylum poem with the line, “You, Dr. Martin, walk from breakfast to madness,” and we are voyeurs, eavesdropping on their conversation. But by the time she adds, “There are no knives for cutting your throat,” we are still you, no longer Dr. Martin, but patients with our own throats protected by the absence of tools with which we might slice them. This threatens our tenancy in the land of the unscathed and reliably sane, connecting us to Sexton even as it reveals her multiple faces: you, I, we, and us. She is confessing not just what sets her apart from either Doctor Martin or her reader, but what – more disturbingly and profoundly – connects us all.

Poems shoot doubt and contradiction through our identities, as we resist the possibility of narrowing ourselves to any single identity. Confessional poems liberate explicitly, letting us reveal and hide, hold contradictions in our minds and lines, inhabit and align multiple versions of ourselves. They issue powerful invitations to readers to do such work, too. “Without” let me be both I and you, vulnerable boss of my own poem, yet also fearful subject and object. I am the I and not the I, the you and not the you, multiple versions of myself connected by the magic of writing and reading—to you, whoever you may in fact be.

AGNI Monkey

Author Photo BeijingRachel DeWoskin is the author of the novels Second Circus (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011); and Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); as well as the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies. Her work has been published in magazines including Vanity Fair, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

North

by William Archila

…los que nunca sabe nadie de donde son/…/
los que fueron cocidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera/…/
los eternos indocumentados/…/

…the ones no one ever knows where they’re from/… /
The ones burned by bullets when they crossed the border/… /
the eternally undocumented/…/

Roque Dalton, Poema de Amor
May 14, 1935 – May 10, 1975

Back in the fall of 2010, while strolling around Echo Park Lake in Southern California, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for KPCC, an affiliate of NPR, asked me after the interview, “Do you know of any other published Salvadoran poets writing in English?” I was stunned. I quickly scrabbled the bottom of my brain for a face, an image, some sort of anecdote that could lead me to a name, but I had none. My lack of response said more about my knowledge and isolation than the presence of Salvadoran poets in this country. I mean I’m not on FACEBOOK. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I knew they were out there teaching, getting their MFAs, taking care of their families, but I just didn’t have the contacts.

This changed in 2014 when Kalina produced the anthology Theatre Under My Skin which collects not only the work of poets that reside in El Salvador and write in Spanish, but also the work of poets that have emigrated to the United States and write in the language of their adopted country. After receiving my contributor’s copy, I immediately sent Adolfo a copy and began not only to guttle the anthology but also to read the debut collections of some of these poets: José B. González, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Javier Zamora, and others not included in the anthology like Harold Terezon and Cynthia Guardado. I could go on, but there’s no point because the list will always exclude someone.

I found tremendous strength in these poems. They crossed the borders of diaspora; religious, political, war and migration stories that sometimes braid the dual language or the performative aesthetic. They underscore the experiences of Salvadoran identities caught between cultures and languages.

Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Javier Zamora, a poet whose experiences as a Salvadoran immigrant living in the U.S. is central to his poems. His first full-length poetry collection, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017), describes his experiences with border crossing.

El Salvador

Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb
will clean your beard of  salt, and if  I touch your volcanic face,

kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.
Don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios

stain you with pollen. Every day cops and gangsters pick at you
with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty.

Dad swears he’ll never return, Mom wants to see her mom,
and in the news: black bags, more and more of us leave.

The poem personifies the country and begins a conversation that addresses the intricacies of the speaker’s relationship to his native land. It reminds me of the conversations we all have with our own countries; our countries as death, God, or our lover—a possible, pocketsize Canto General for El Salvador.

Here’s another excerpt, this one a quasi-sonnet, by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, a poet whose debut collection Matria, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), is a poetic sequence based on the Salvadoran Lotería.

La Cachiporrista

…the man’s hooded eyes, as he watches from behind the wire
diamonds of chain-link, the whirling wrists of a teenage girl
in a majorette skirt fashioned out of half-inch-thick strips
of cut newsprint, the fringe swaying with her hips
as she twirls a baton of broken broomstick
in circles, wrist over wrist, and tosses it high as she
turns to catch it fanning behind her back…

Regalado’s poem is a snapshot of everyday El Salvador. It’s one long sentence and in its form the piece comes across almost like a postcard poem; concise, imagistic and direct in the way it engages all our senses. It captures a measure of humanity, displaying the beauty and violence that resides in such a small country.

So why the sudden rush of Salvadoran poets? Back in the nineties finding another Salvadoran poet was like hitting the lottery. You couldn’t believe your eyes that there was such a thing as a Salvadoran poet standing in front of you. It was a rare thing. Unfortunately it takes the current Central American immigrant issue and the unaccompanied minors narrative that brings these poets to the surface. Now it seems it’s all about timing and accessibility. As the new administration in the White House threaten to end TPS, a humanitarian program that has allowed nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., the work of these poets seems more relevant than ever. After all, if you want to understand a culture and its people, you go to the poets. You don’t go to their politicians or generals, or businessmen. You read their poets.

Although the foundation of Salvadoran poetry is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country, the poets who emigrated and write in English have contributed their own experiences and styles to the art form as well. This contribution is a new branch to the Salvadoran tree of poetry. At the same time, but most important of all, these poets are producing quality work with a fresh look on our current political climate. They are establishing a presence in contemporary American poetry, especially at the local and state literary cultures and movements. They are also complicating the definition of a Latino poet. When I started reading Latino poetry back in the early nineties I fell in love with their words. When I started writing, for a long time, I felt I had to write the type of poems that I could not find in journals or magazines. There was no such a thing as a poem about the complexities of the Salvadoran experience. And now I get to sit down with their work and read of and about my experience. I love the fact that these poems are the firsts of their kind. They are the first of the Mohicans. These Salvi poets are perhaps the first known Salvadoran poets of the United States.

Now I know there are more Salvadoran poets whose fine work has appeared in various literary journals, chapbooks and anthologies, such as The Wandering Song; Central American Writing in the United States, the first-ever comprehensive literary survey of the Central American diaspora. However, it’s a fact I should have known back in Echo Park Lake when Adolfo posed the question. After all, it is a common saying or knowledge that El Salvador is a land of poets and volcanoes. These poets have not only spread that knowledge, but have kept it burning.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Ars Longa: A Complaint

by Richard Hoffman

This is a short essay that is probably mostly whining. It seems as if it is at least a third of what we writers do: writers who haven’t yet published complain that they are shut out. Writers who have published complain about their publishers not adequately marketing their books. Writers who get bad reviews complain. Writers whose books don’t get reviewed at all complain. Even writers who get good reviews find something in them to whine about.

Recently a colleague whose latest book met a fate similar to mine, whose disappointment seems even greater, told me he had spent time in the emergency room the previous weekend. “For my head,” he said, “I was having a breakdown.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate because I know how crushing post-publication silence can be, like throwing a party to which nobody comes: you stand there looking at the food, the drinks, the cake, the balloons and twisted crepe paper, and decide you will never write again, never throw another party, never put your trust in human beings again, ever.

Much of this whining over a book’s reception exceeds disappointment, which is understandable, and becomes a sickness of the ego, “vanity, and a chasing after wind.” Or is it a symptom of an already existing sickness of the ego? In any case, we all have egos, and a sickness is nothing to laugh at or stigmatize. In his 1936 essay “The Crack-up” F. Scott Fitzgerald, even as he complained of far more grievous matters, bemoaned his fate as a novelist in the age of cinema:

“I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.”

This complaint arrives from a time before television! The visual culture that has been steadily gaining on print culture ever since has now crossed back over into the print culture in the form of graphic novels and most recently, memoirs.

Full disclosure (see re: writerly whining, above): my recent memoir Love & Fury was a finalist for the new England Booksellers’ Association’s New England Book Award in nonfiction, and it lost to Roz Chast’s Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? a “graphic memoir” that has gone on to great success. So, I cannot plead any but the most forced and deliberate objectivity. But it still seems important to ask what this latest development means.

Will we learn a new language midway between the pictorial and alphabetical? Will books become Classics Illustrated versions of themselves? Will emoticons eventually evolve into a complex system of signs like Mandarin? Or is this simply another demonstration of film and video’s hegemony, publishers desperately trying to stay alive? So many novels now seem “treatments” for films or TV/web series; is this the case with these graphic books as well? After all, they are already “storyboarded” for the shooting script.

Again, this may just be me complaining, but it does seem to me that there are simply fewer readers who are able to appreciate good prose or artful sentences. Recently a graduate student in an MFA program asked me why James Baldwin “always writes such long ass sentences? Why doesn’t he just say what he means?” I was speechless. After a few moments I asked the student if he thought James Baldwin wasn’t saying what he means. The student took his turn being speechless. Now I think that the student was responding to the fact that Baldwin’s style is such that nearly every paragraph is an argument within his longer argument, an inquiry within his larger inquiry, and as such it often ends in an epigram. While I see these epigrams as the pitons that allow Baldwin’s ascent up the sheer cliffs of his subject (or up the walls of the racist pit or oubliette of sexual shaming into which he’d been cast), I think my student recognized these quotable sentences, subtotals in Baldwin’s figuring, as “what Baldwin was trying to say.” And yet it is, always, that “trying” that is the essence of the essay, not the epigrams, many of them suitable for tweeting.

You can learn to think from James Baldwin, can learn how to think about the things that are most difficult to think about. Baldwin can teach you how to think while feeling; i.e. how to keep on feeling while you are thinking. And that prose! Those long ass sentences.

Baldwin knows where the seams are in the rock of our denial, where the dynamite is most effectively placed. He can bring down the walls, blow up the battlements. But he can also wield a verbal scalpel with the skill of a neurosurgeon. Sometimes he does both these things within a single paragraph. In other words, “what he is trying to say” is inseparable from the thinking—done in language, in the modern American English prose he helped define—that is its vehicle. This is the kind of prose, in fact the kind of thinking, we will lose if readers continue to migrate to visual storytelling and nonfiction as a series of pictograms.

Can we have both? Yes. But the larger share of readers’ attention will always go to the less demanding medium. We’re a fast food nation, an on-demand society, a culture sustained by imagery. My writing this is an act of resistance—by that I don’t mean it is especially virtuous or even important, only that I want to retain the ability to think in a way I believe more likely to help me understand experience than merely react to it, or “capture” it, or document it in a tweet or photo.

Not long ago I was teaching at a conference devoted to the short form—flash fiction/nonfiction; prose poems, etc. I was doing it first of all for the money (and maybe I would sell a few books) but also because I wanted to press the participants to move beyond what often feels to me like settling for less, or imaginative laziness. Too often these short forms seem to me like the first paragraphs of stories the writer was too lazy or inexperienced to develop.

Of course, I have learned, via Robert Gibbons’ work and the work of my colleague Gian Lombardo and others, that the prose poem can be an illumination (as Rimbaud called his) and flash fiction—as practiced by artists like Steve Almond, Lydia Davis, Pam Painter—can be deeply satisfying. Still, so many of these short-form pieces seem to me to be just that, pieces, as if the writer has refused to confront the resistance that real writing moves against, that real essays seem to break through, that real stories contend with.

I am not, I hope, merely being a curmudgeon. (Pushing 70, I need to guard against that easy-chair misanthropy.) I’m interested in the flash of insight, yes, but I’m also interested in sustained reflection that yields perhaps important tracings of consequence, writing that exercises a kind of peripheral vision that, while gazing in the direction of the present, is aware of the past and future as well. I want to keep faith with a way of knowing the world and the self deeply, through language, in prose, and figuring out what’s right: the right word, the right tone, the right sentence structure, the right rhythm, pace, recursiveness—the right response to yesterday’s disappointment, to tomorrow’s promise, to life.

AGNI Monkey

RHbySvenRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University. See what he’s published in AGNI here.